“We Save Lives” is the theme of this year’s Fire Service Recognition Day on Saturday, May 12th. This annual event provides the Fire Department an opportunity to increase the public’s awareness of their varied roles. Venice’s station, #63, located at 1930 Shell Ave. (on the corner of Venice Blvd.), will be open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and will offer educational tours and informational displays.
The Fire Department is not proactive like the Police Department … they do not patrol the streets looking for fires. Therefore, the public’s perception of their duties is not as defined. I thought it important not only to tell you about the open house, but also to give some insight on how they do save lives. So, I requested and was granted a ride-a-long.
I arrived at the station at 8:00 am … in time for “line up” which is when Captain II Walter “Mike” Franklin talked about what is expected of the day, who’s working and gave out any pertinent information that needed to be passed down to the firefighters.
I had been through the station a couple of years ago when #63 hosted a mixer for the Venice Chamber of Commerce. At that time, we learned that the station, built in 1942, was constructed well but it was now outdated, especially the electrical system. Plans have been “in the works for a long time” to update the electrical (which will cost about $30,000), update the kitchen, install a heating and air conditioning system plus install a diesel exhaust system. Diesel exhaust is a health hazard and the system can’t be installed before the electric is upgraded. Think of the fumes winding their way up the stairs to the living quarters where the firefighters sleep! Why isn’t it happening? Lack of funds! Station #63 is not on the priority list for Prop F bond money. If and when this major work is completed, Capt. Franklin would like to have a maintenance free tile floor in several of the rooms, new blinds on the windows plus a “bunch of little stuff”. He would like to convert an old handball court, built by firemen in 1948 and covered by his men, into a physical fitness room. The weights are now located next to the fire rigs.
Station #63 is what is known as a task force station … with a truck, engine and pump. The truck, driven by the AO (Apparatus Operator), carries the ladders and other equipment. The AO, along with the Captain II, is in charge of an operation. The front engine, driven by the Captain I, carries the water and the rear engine, driven by an Engineer, is known as the “pump” and it provides additional water. “The engine runs more than the truck,” says Capt. Franklin. What’s left is a light force when the engine is out. The pump will stay with the truck in case water is needed.
“The ambulance gets more calls than the engine,” Capt. Franklin adds. Eighty percent of the calls are medical. This is in line with overall departmental quarterly stats. During the last quarter of 2000, there was an average of 886 emergency incidents very day: EMS (Emergency Medical Service) incidents accounted for 79%, fires and fire alarms accounted for 14% and all other incidents accounted for 7%. There was an average of 120 fires and fire alarms per day: 17 structure incidents, 46 other fire incidents and 57 fire alarms incidents. I wonder how many of the fire alarm incidents were false!
I have always been curious as to how the Fire Department ended up providing medical treatment. Prior to 1970 the ambulance service was handled by the Health Department that, at the time, was part of the City of Los Angeles. It was terribly fragmented and didn’t have much supervision. The Metropolitan/Downtown area had 13 ambulances running out of different facilities including police stations. The service on the Westside was contracted out to private companies. The Valley fire stations had their own ambulances. The Harbor area used some ambulances that were in stations and others that were private. In 1970 the mayor and city council agreed they didn’t like the way the system was being managed. It was decided to give the ambulance service to the fire department because it relates … firefighters save lives, ambulances save lives. Besides, the fire department was already doing a lot of that kind of work. Thus, was born the paramedic whose purpose is to provide advanced life support care in emergency settings.
I was outfitted with a brush jacket, body armor (bullet proof vest) and a helmet in anticipation of a “run”. “There’s no type of catastrophe that we aren’t called out to,” says Capt. Franklin. Their calls see it all … homicides, drug overdoses, shootings, stabbings, domestic violence, births, automobile accidents, accidental fires, arson, stalled elevators and the proverbial cat in a tree. Capt. Franklin tells me that it is usually the owner of the cat that they have to treat because the person is so shook up thinking that the cat can’t get down by itself. “A cat may be up in a tree for hoursbut they can get down once they get their courage up,” Capt. Franklin says. “We usually get scratched because they’re scared.” Unusual calls include helping a young boy who was stuck in a chimney and removing a bird that was caught in a wall. Capt. Franklin also recalled a time when he responded to a man who was trapped in a grease duct in an attempt to get inside a McDonald’s to burglarize the restaurant.
The firefighters have on going training. This particular day we were off to Bruffy’s Towing so Rookie Vince Fusillo could do an extrication (tearing up a car by popping doors, moving seats back and taking the roof off). This was a drill to simulate a physical rescue … what would be done when responding to a traffic accident where someone was trapped in a car. Training a rookie is very serious business. The captain has to document every time they go over something with a probationer. It makes everyone accountable … the captains, the firefighters and the rookie.
It was interesting to watch the “jaws of life” or spreaders close up. Did you know the tool actually weighs 72 lbs. and one person holds it? It was originally made by the Hurst Co. for car accidents on the racetrack. The name was popularized by the “Engine 51” television series in the 70s. “The use of the tool is up to the imagination of the user and strengths and weaknesses of the tool,” says Capt. Franklin. “For example, I could use it (if I felt it was the best tool we had at the time) to maybe pry on a piece of concrete to free someone trapped from the result of an earthquake or other type of disaster. Therefore, I may pry, or spread, or cut, or pull etc. Its #1 asset is its great mechanical strength.” Other tools used were the slicer that is able to shear metal in half and the cutter that is a reciprocating saw used, for instance, to cut the posts of a car body. I played “patient” while Rookie Vince removed the roof and cut out the front window. I was covered and certainly had no fear of the situation. However, if it been the “real thing” the firefighters would also be there to calm the person down and offer emotional assistance. I was able to try a window punch. It’s a tool that with a little applied pressure will smash a window into smithereens.
David Valadez explained how firefighters have to know a little about a lot. They need to know about electricity. Wires come down when it’s rainy and windy and can be a dangerous. They need to know about car construction in order to understand how a car is put together because they’re going to be taking them apart. They can’t fight against what has been designed to be the strongest points. It’s just as important to know the weakest points because that way the doors and roof will come off easier. The same with building construction. They want to stay away from weak points and know what’s going to burn the fastest and come down first. It’s important to know roof construction … they need to know where they’re walking. David related a story where firefighters fell to their death through a roof into the fire. A recent episode of the television program “Third Watch” closed a segment with an acknowledgement of the 92 firefighters who were killed in the line of duty in 2000.
Then there are other types of on-the-job hazards. Rookie Vince told me that he got on a scale and had on 100 lbs. of equipment. The “turn out” jacket alone weighs about 25 lbs. and it has attachments for tools, a face piece and breathing apparatus. Add to that the matching turn out pants and boots and then a helmet. “They get their name because the pants are rolled onto and over the turnout boots so a firefighter can quickly don them by just stepping into them and pulling up the pants,” Capt. Franklin says. “Just like in the movies. We still do that.” Rookie Vince also made sure that I knew the firefighters buckle up every time they leave the station … whether responding to a call or just going to someplace like Bruffy’s … in order to prevent injuries. “Plus, it’s the law,” he says. The work is really tough on the body. It is not uncommon for firefighters to have back and knee operations. I had to practice to becomesomewhat comfortable with my ability to get on and off the rig in which I was riding. I was a guest and only had to do it several times. Multiply this by many times a day for many days and something is bound to give. Lifting heavy patients also causes back injuries. And what about the heavy hoses?
I rode on the pump with Engineer Mike Morales. I rode both in the jump seat facing backwards and in the front seat. While in the jump seat I wore a headset to muffle the sound and to communicate with the front. The engines at the station were made in 1984. “They’re the oldest frontline rigs in service but they’re still good,” Engineer Mike says. He has been at #63 for two months and explained to me that he called the Maps and Drafting Unit to request maps of the district so he could study them before his arrival. “One of the most important things for engineers, apparatus operators and captains to do is predetermine good access points,” he says. “Venice streets are tricky. It’s a challenging district,” Can you imagine how confusing it must have been for emergency vehicles when we had West Washington Blvd., Washington Way, Washington Blvd. and Washington St.? There are a lot of pie shaped streets and they change direction. Engineer Mike called Abbot Kinney Blvd. a “dogleg” street … meaning, in firefighter lingo, that it doesn’t follow a north/south or east/west direction. In addition, normally when you’re traveling in a northerly direction the numbers on the east side would be even and the west side odd. The addresses on Abbot Kinney are the opposite. That, too, can be confusing. We have numerous one-way streets. They have to be anticipated. Then we have homes on the Canals and walk streets that the emergency vehicles can only access from an alley. It is so important for these buildings to have the address numbers facing the courts for this reason. Also, this is the beach community. What do we get on summer weekends? A lot of traffic … especially on Venice Blvd. and Pacific Ave. Our fire department needs to have predetermined routes in order to avoid this congestion. Venice is not a cookie cutter community. There are a wide variety of different types of buildings … from commercial to single family to multi-story. The firefighters need to know what to expect. The logistics do not come out of thin air.
Station #63 welcomes students to visit the station and the firefighters go to schools and organizations to give talks on fire safety and provide demonstrations. They also help the Dept. of Recreation and Parks hang a banner on Ocean Front Walk for their annual handball tournament. At Christmas time they collect toys for needy families.
I asked Capt. Franklin about safety tips. “Good housekeeping is the biggest thing,” he replied. Here are things to remember: keep trash and combustible items away from the water heater; make sure systems, like electrical, are up to code; get someone to install an outlet instead of running an extension cord; clean your dryer vents; clean floor and wall heaters before you turn them on for the cold season and, of course, don’t smoke it bed. Particular to this area are candle fires. Do not leave burning candles unattended. “Better housekeeping can prevent a whole lot of problems,” Capt. Franklin warns.
I have to say I was very impressed with our life savers. They are dedicated, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their job … from Rookie Vince who joined the department just several months ago to Capt. Franklin who has been on the job for 29 years. Hopefully we won’t need their services, but if we do, we’re in good hands.