The Call: “You never know what’s going to happen when you go out.”
Every time the radio crackles through the station intercom, all activity pauses. Someone flips the mute button on the television. Everyone’s eyes open a little wider, but no one turns his head – the call might not be for them, but they want it to be. There is a brief pause between the radio announcement ping and the dispatcher’s voice relating the location and type of incident.
The firefighters at Station 11, on Storke Road just north of the UCSB Francisco Torres Residence Hall, say they have most of the addresses in their coverage area memorized. Before the dispatcher can specify which of the 15 Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. stations is closest to the emergency, the six-man crew is either halfway out the door, or the television volume is back up.
“Busy days sometimes mean people are hurt or there are catastrophes, but busy days are the challenge,” Capt. Bob Bell said. “That’s why we’re here. You never know what’s going to happen when you go out.”
On this Sunday afternoon three weeks ago, the only call that mobilized a Station 11 response was from the police department, which needed a ladder to enter a second-floor apartment in Goleta to check on someone’s welfare. This situation is hardly the structure fire or complicated ocean or mountain rescue that these firefighters continuously train to handle, but there are many days like that.
Bell, who has served as a county firefighter for 17 years and a forest service firefighter for 12 years, said that during downtime between calls, firefighters lift weights, clean and organize equipment, practice procedures or study for certification exams.
Several firefighters are in the station’s office, reading and quizzing themselves for the engineer test, which Bell said is the most demanding of several certification examinations. He points to a sizable bookshelf crammed with texts on fire science and equipment schematics.
“Pretty much anything on there is fair game,” Bell said. “From the first day on the job, you start building that library of knowledge.”
Isla Vista: “Couch fires are all fun until someone’s car catches on fire.”
With sirens blaring around the curve at the corner of El Colegio and Storke Roads, it only takes minutes for fire trucks from Station 11 to arrive at Isla Vista structure fires, medical emergencies, cliff falls or weekend night couch fires.
In addition to the high population density and substandard construction that plague Isla Vista with an increased fire danger, firefighters must also contend with the town’s accident-prone student inhabitants.
Firefighter and paramedic John Ford, 33, who is from Santa Barbara and used to live on Del Playa Drive, said he is more than aware of the wild student behavior that takes place on the streets of Isla Vista. He has seen both sides of the couch fire.
“I’m definitely in touch with what [students] do,” Ford said. “I was this way, too, when I was a younger individual. You want to have independence and not have people telling you how to live.”
Ford, whose father teaches chemistry at UCSB, said that while going to college, he had little ambition apart from surfing and going to the beach. To make money, he became a lifeguard during the summer months. He wound up enjoying the work so much that he went to paramedic school, and from there to the Fire Dept.
“I’m not that far away from that age, but the older you get, you see it a little differently,” Ford said. “Couch fires are all fun until someone’s car catches on fire, or a structure.”
While firefighters in Isla Vista are usually viewed with respect, Ford said they are often grouped with police officers as authority figures who are out to regulate everyone’s good time.
“If we go out on a call and someone is very intoxicated, they think they can make decisions,” Ford said. “But when people don’t wake up and we have to take them to the hospital, we get looked upon as the bad guy when we’re just doing the right thing.”
Ford said his attitude toward college student behavior has matured.
“I never thought I’d like to see police around,” he said. “But now, I see those guys driving around through my neighborhood, and I’m like, ‘you know, I’m glad those guys are out there.'”
Sergio Sanchez, a firefighter with the rank of engineer – meaning he is trained to drive, operate and maintain the station’s ladder truck – said he remembers a weekend after UCSB’s graduation in 1999 when Station 11 was kept up all night, putting out nearly 40 fires in Isla Vista.
“As long as they’re not hurting anybody, I laugh because they’re having fun,” Sanchez said. “All of us like working with the students – they keep it interesting. If you get mad every time someone does something stupid, you shouldn’t be doing this job.”
The Job: “We want that bell to ring.”
“It’s the little kid in you that wants to do something good,” Sanchez said. “There are people who don’t want to get up and go to work every morning. I can’t wait to get to work.”
The firefighter workweek is 56 hours long. A shift lasts 24 hours, from 8 a.m. one day, to 8 a.m. the next. They take turns cooking. Tonight’s meal is a variety of Mexican dishes. A card game determines who does the dishes. There is a big-screen television with several hundred channels facing six La-Z-Boy recliner chairs. There is no fire pole at Station 11; firefighters have to run down the stairs from the second-floor dormitory-style bedrooms.
It does not matter what they are doing when a call comes in – whether sleeping, in the shower or on the toilet – they need to be dressed, in the truck and out the garage door in seconds. Dinner and sleep sometimes wait.
Their yellow reflective suits-which are fire-resistant but not fireproof – weigh roughly 60 pounds when coupled with the standard air supply tank. The suits and plastic fire hats are a second skin for these firefighters, who wear them all the time when on a call or when completing a training exercise.
Calls never have a set duration. Disasters can pull firefighters away from their wives and families for days on end. They keep bags packed and ready to grab on their way to the truck.
This is Capt. Thadias King’s first shift back at Station 11 since serving on a strike team of local firefighters that helped put out devastating wildfires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties last month.
He sifts through compartments of the station’s most specialized and expensive equipment: wet suits, custom helmets, night vision and GPS locators. During ocean rescues, firefighters use the same waterproof communication devices used by Navy SEALs.
A pair of Wave Runners sits on a trailer in the garage, and a truck full of heavy equipment used to stabilize collapsed buildings waits parked behind the station’s two fire trucks. The station’s largest truck can extend a 100-foot ladder, which is capable of reaching the tallest buildings on the UCSB campus.
“No other station has this stuff,” King said. “Everyone wants to be at this station. It’s one of the busiest and most advanced.”
King, a 25-year department veteran, said every firefighter who serves at Station 11 has at least 10 to 15 years of experience and is a certified emergency medical technician with defibrillator training. Because of its high volume of medical emergency calls, Station 11 also employs a full-time paramedic, who is also a firefighter.
The men are all highly trained swimmers, Wave Runner pilots, truck drivers and ladder operators. They constantly practice firefighting procedures and maintain certification on complicated equipment, such as the Jaws of Life, which King said could turn a car into a pile of metal in a minute and a half by applying 20,000 pounds of force to the tip of its grasp.
While operating advanced equipment in life-threatening situations may seem stressful, King said stress is not a large hindrance to firefighter performance.
“The stress comes from not knowing what to do,” King said. “We know what we’re doing. We want that bell to ring.”
The Fellowship: “He wasn’t going to let his brother die.”
Capt. Bell said that since every call is different, the only constant to being a firefighter is the people you work with.
“You’re always stretched, always tested,” Bell said. “But you’re always doing it with your peer group.”
Sanchez explained last week that firefighters consider themselves one big family. From the 343 firefighters who died in New York City on Sept. 11, to the firefighters working alongside him, Sanchez said all are related.
The audience at last Tuesday’s Medal of Valor ceremony for firefighter Jonathan Veale was packed with firefighters and their families, his peers.
At a training exercise in the loading dock area behind the Staples office supply store in the Camino Real shopping center, Sanchez points out Veale, who is standing atop truck 11 after climbing down the ladder from the roof where members of Station were practicing rooftop ventilation techniques.
“That’s the guy who saved Howard,” Sanchez said, referring to how Veale made repeated attempts to free fellow firefighter Howard Orr as he was shocked by several thousand volts of electricity from a downed power line this past summer. “He wasn’t going to let his brother die.”