From big-city bombero to a small-town boss: A fire service transition

Why I chose to leave the concrete jungle and embrace a slower-paced fire service experience

Both rear doors slam shut as the engineer releases the parking brake. “Three ready! Four ready!” shout the backseat firefighters, snapping their turnout coats as they flop into their seats.

The pumper makes a swift right turn out of the station just as the captain hits the Federal Q – a good soundtrack on the way to a job. The screams of the Federal Q and blasts of air horn echo off the concrete and glass towers that swell over the top of the 42,000-pound fire engine.

On the way to the fire, located just four blocks away, about 600 civilians armed with their phones witness the engine maneuver around expensive cars, polished SUVs and Bird scooters.

Being in a smaller town isn’t about status, it’s about relationships. Networking, handshakes and good conversations are the lay of the land.
Being in a smaller town isn’t about status, it’s about relationships. Networking, handshakes and good conversations are the lay of the land. (Photo/Andrew Klein)

Engine 1, first due, reaches the fire. The captain gives a calm and direct command to the communications center: “Fire Comm, Engine 1 on scene. Three-story garden-style apartment complex. We have smoke and fire showing second floor. We’re stretching a line for fire attack.”

Game on.

This was the start of a typical call riding in a busy downtown engine company with a respected and progressive Southern California fire department. There was truly nothing else like it. This was an earned position and responsibility. No slackers. Only the ones who put in the work and want the job bad enough get it.

I was fortunate to have that opportunity for many years until I moved to my next chapter. As life evolves, priorities must be reassessed. That’s how I went from a big-city bombero to a small-town boss.

Big-city dreaming: “I was still missing what I really wanted”

I started my career in a small combination department as a fire explorer, and after three active years and a testing process, I traded in my black helmet for a shiny yellow lid on my 18th birthday.

From run-of-the-mill single-family jobs to working on my dad during his fatal cardiac arrest, I received a lot of experience early in my career. To this young firefighter, it didn’t matter what was happening in my life, I wanted the action.

I went on to join a hotshot crew for a mound of wildland experience that was nothing short of amazing. Three years later, I moved to the operations side of the department where I remained for another seven years.

Training of any type was in my blood, and I eventually went to work on the department’s USAR team. I had great experiences, lots of fires and many memorable rescues. But I was still missing what I really wanted – to work in the concrete jungle.

The people: “I wanted to be a part of this”

I was attending a Fire Control 3 class hosted at an area department’s training tower. I didn’t know most of the people – but that quickly changed. Everyone was engaged and sharing knowledge. Of course it was a great class because it involved what we like to do most – put out fires – but it was the people who made it special.

To say the people were amazing and talented individuals would be putting it lightly. The social climate on the grinder was that of any typical firehouse banter. Laughter kept the atmosphere fun but switched to work mode when it was time to “send it.” From the junior firefighter to the eldest captain, everyone was sweating and working. Even BCs stepped in to get dirty to sharpen their professional iron. It wasn’t a theme I was used to seeing, but it was inspiring – chief officers leading by example. I wanted to be a part of this.

Battalion Chief Manny Torres encouraged me to apply for the big-city experience. I applied and made the list. The next step was testing with thousands of hopeful applicants. Weeks later, I went through two interview panels and ultimately got the job offer two days before Christmas. It was quite the gift.

Hammer down: “The bar was set very high”

The 12-week tower started three months after the job offer. Ten of us were in the recruit class, all lined up on a foggy Los Angeles morning wearing white button-ups, black pressed slacks and glossy dress shoes. Because two of my classmates didn’t have their uniforms yet, we all stayed in this garment for the first week. We felt like a bunch of lost parking attendants.

The next week, we were all in our normal blues. We quickly wore out the heavy starch meant to keep the material crisp as we ran everywhere and got soaked during hose evolutions and our own sweat.

Within the first two weeks, we lost two from our class, leaving the “Great 8” to prove themselves.

The bar was set very high from the start. Testing on manipulative skills and policies was a daily occurrence. Written tests were not as stressful as the eyes that constantly watched over us, sizing-up our every move. This was no joke.

We started our journey in the Southern California fire service, and we were hungry to make it a reality. We all helped each other develop our skills. It was a real team at that point. Everyone in our recruit class worked great together, and the instructors were spot on with their direction and knowledge.

Rookie life: “My game face was never turned off”

My rookie year was typical for any new firefighter in that part of SoCal. But this department was a bit more intense than the surrounding agencies, in my humble opinion. Approximately 40% of probies are cut due to lack of retention or bad attitude. My game face was never turned off once we were on the clock, and the studying never stopped.

Days off consisted of recovery mode from physical and mental exhaustion from the 20-30 calls a day, plus hitting the books hard. Eat, study, study harder, bathroom break, study, etc.

There was the expectation to have a set of equipment drills and policy reviews ready for presentation before the next cycle. The 6-inch binder overflowing with notes, training manuals and equipment specifications never left my possession. In fact, I still have it and reference material on equipment frequently. City street maps, drills on all tools on the apparatus, and many other activities was now part of my daily routine. It was much more than mopping floors and running calls. Ownership of the tools and equipment made for a knowledgeable and professional firefighter.

Station life: “A unique, yet entertaining, challenge”

Headquarters was where it was at. The all-brick firehouse built in 1955 was crammed with two pumpers, a tillered ladder truck, a medium rescue rig and a battalion wagon. The fluctuations of 14 other personalities in a station originally built for nine was a unique, yet entertaining, challenge.

The open dorm arrangement surrounded the pole hole upstairs, and all the lights came on regardless of which company got the hit. The station would often get 18 calls after midnight. If it wasn’t my engine’s call, I tried to cover my eyes to sleep only to be awakened within 30 seconds for my engine’s turn.

The calls were never the same, but by the time we had our third call, a theme was established for the day – Trauma Tuesdays, OD day, Freaky Friday, Med-Surg Monday, Scooter Saturday, etc.

Through teamwork, swift responses and heart, our crew overcame any challenge we faced. We’d chat about the bad and good on calls over coffee and move onto the next run.

For the tougher calls, we still talk about those to this day, and time still hasn’t eased the heartache of losses we experienced. But we also managed to save countless lives. Those moments make the pain easier to manage.

The downtown area had the highest call volume, and just when we had an absolutely crazy experience, 10 minutes later, it would get topped by another wild adventure.
The downtown area had the highest call volume, and just when we had an absolutely crazy experience, 10 minutes later, it would get topped by another wild adventure. (Photo/Andrew Klein)

The next 6 years: “Another wild adventure”

The aroma of fresh coffee filled the kitchen, and 15 firefighters now sat at an epoxy top table measuring 22 feet long and 4 feet wide. Morning line-up started at 0830 every morning, and most of the time, we’d make it through the 10-15 minute meeting without being interrupted. The inspections and department business we set out to do normally got pushed aside as we continued to run calls past lunch and dinner time. It didn’t matter. Those that worked HQ wanted to be there. It was a place for anything and everything to happen.

As time marched on, more probationary classes were pushed after ours. With retirements and promotions, our class went up the seniority list. The time on the streets gave us experiences we’d grow from and apply to every shift. Stabbings, working structure fires in crowded apartment complexes, DUI traffic collisions with extrications, etc. The downtown area had the highest call volume, and just when we had an absolutely crazy experience, 10 minutes later, it would get topped by another wild adventure.

May 31, 2020: “A life-altering experience”

I had just worked five days straight and made it home to my three kids (I now have four). I was tired but felt accomplished from the previous stretch. My wife went out to run some errands just before my best friend texted me, “Turn on the news.” Civil unrest and riots were taking over my town, and I wasn’t there to protect my people. I was concerned about the safety of my guys, the people I loved. I was anxious and upset.

When my wife returned home, I told her, “My city’s burning, and people live above those buildings that are involved. I gotta go.” Understanding as a fire wife but reluctant as a mother, she gave me the nod.

For the first time in my life, we rounded up the kids and did a family prayer. We cried, hugged and had a very unique “see you later” moment in the driveway. I emptied my car of my camera equipment and anything else of value before I hit the road. I was totally prepared to abandon my vehicle if needed. Within five minutes, I was flying down the 101 freeway to join my fire family.

The following week was filled with a dark mix of feelings – sad, thankful, confused, stressed, lucky and pissed off, to name a few. There several times that myself and my guys experienced near misses involving a masked stranger’s gun or shiny fixed blade. Because this was during COVID, all the perpetrators wore masks. To this day, I still see them everywhere I go, whenever I see someone wearing a mask.

It was a life-altering experience.

Really, the entire department faced many different angles of stress and near-misses, many that still haunt members to this day. Everyone there had the unique perspective of watching their city burn, streets forever littered with bad visions.

There was no after-action review for the members to process what happened. The only memo from administration was for the company officers to write up their assignments and submit all documentation over a period of about five days to their respective battalion chiefs. None of the firefighters or engineers were ever given the opportunity to decompress or share their input on operations, safety, etc. For example, three-quarters of the department didn’t have ballistic vests to wear while dealing with the violent activity. It saddened me that our voices weren’t a concern for upper management.

Reassessing the situation: “I had a choice”

It was time to rethink my current position.

I didn’t want to stay. I wasn’t enjoying work anymore. It became normal for me to work for several days at a time and start to fade away the thoughts of my kids and my wife. Work was consuming me, and I was allowing it to happen. I wasn’t feeling appreciated or supported in the programs and daily activities. After a while, I simply stepped back and looked at my family. My wife and three daughters were starting to change, as I was, and not for the better. It was time to take action.

The lack of R&R, long drives from my house at 0300, and then being up most of my days on was becoming a safety concern. And with my kids, I was becoming more irritable over minor things around the house. The frequent nightmares of past calls was a constant battle at home and on duty. Moving closer to my job wasn’t an option for us either.

Life presents us with challenges that test our abilities to adapt and conquer. It’s either get squashed and feel sorry for ourselves or keep on truckin’. I had a choice.

I made the decision to make a move to save my home life and my love for the job.

A big step: “Don’t be mad. I applied for a new job”

I took the leap for a new job as a fire captain for a department less than an hour from our house. At the time, I had a collective 23 years of firefighting experience, including time as an acting officer.

The day I applied for the new job, I was optimistic and praying things would change, but I was also second-guessing myself for trading in the hard work I did for my big-city dream. I didn’t tell even my closest fire friends because I wasn’t sure how that rumor might translate.

I sent completed the online application. Green light. The next task was going home and facing uncertain music from my wife, as I hadn’t talked with her about this decision.

“Don’t be mad,” I said. “I applied for a new job.” Her reply: “Good for you. I’m glad you did.” She smiled and wasn’t upset like I thought she would be. I could’ve cried. My wife was supportive of the choice I made as she knew and felt it was the perfect time to start over again, for the better. There was nothing to lose at that point.

That was the beginning of a brighter future for our family.

Small-town USA: “The locals help the helpers”

The testing process was the same as any other department doing promotional exams, although it was a lot more expedient – one of the benefits of a small organization. The department was looking to quickly hire a captain to fill a vacancy. After a day of interviews, assessment center and more interviews, I received the call later the same day with the offer.

The department felt like a community-based fire department. A large majority of the community supports the fire department with whatever it needs. From fundraisers to Measure A to get more staffing, the locals help the helpers.

The view was a change, too. In lieu of towering skyscrapers, there were rolling hills, thriving vineyards, single-family dwellings of average and greater sizes, presentable apartment complexes and lots of matured oak trees. Country and small suburbia collided, making for a cozy place to live and work.

The firehouse is located across from a large community park with lots of oaks trees, a playground, gazebo and BBQ areas. It was a welcome sight to enjoy this venue during the weekly concerts in the park with bands that played for thousands of people. We had a front row seat to enjoy it on the apparatus apron.

This is what I had been missing for many years. Being in this new environment brought back the great memories of my upbringing. The change I made also gave my family an opportunity to drive up in less than an hour when they wanted to visit. Before this change, I discouraged my family from visiting the station because I feared for their safety. But now, there’s something about your kids watching you work and them being a part of the job you love. As time goes on, priorities change, and I changed mine to put my kids first.

A new crew: “A shared sense of pride”

My new department isn’t on the coast like my previous job. It’s inland where it’s 100+ degrees during the summer. During my first fire on my second shift, we were in turnouts while it was 105 degrees. A fast-moving house fire spread to a field loaded with dry eucalyptus trees and thick brush, all very close to a track of single-family dwellings. Eight homes were immediately threatened.

I was working down as an engineer that day. Although I hadn’t used my engineer skills in quite some time, it all came back to me without a problem. My intense training over the years dialed me in for this job. By the end of the fire, we flowed over 30,000 gallons using the deck gun and a 2.5-inch line being supplied by a hot hydrant located off my officer’s side. Together, we saved all eight structures. We were spent from the heat of day and the work itself.

Following the call, we rolled into the first night of music concerts at the park across from the firehouse. The tired we felt faded away with the electric environment of the crowd and the band, accompanied with a strong aroma of firefighting smoke in the apparatus bay. As we racked fresh hose on the engine, there was a shared sense of pride and accomplishment among all four of us. It was an awesome way to cap off the honeymoon phase of my new home at Station 71.

A new environment: “It’s about relationships”

The calls we go on may not be as dramatic as my city experience, but we definitely leave things better than how we found them. For example, an elderly woman needed to be transported to the hospital, but she was worried about her dirty dishes being left in the sink. I placed our rig back in service after she was transported, and we did them for her before we left. I’d expect that for my mom if it was a concern for her. We’re a service, and there are many ways to help beyond taking vitals and treating patients. A few days later, we received a nice note from the woman’s daughter expressing her gratitude for our actions. We’ve done our job and left a good impression.

Being in a smaller town isn’t about status, it’s about relationships. Networking, handshakes and good conversations are the lay of the land. And it’s not just the fire department acting in good faith, but the entire community as well. It’s common to see neighbors helping each other without asking for anything in return.

I feel as if my transition has helped my kids dramatically by being more involved with daily routines, school activities and making more memories as a family.
I feel as if my transition has helped my kids dramatically by being more involved with daily routines, school activities and making more memories as a family. (Photo/Dena Marie’s Photography)

Family first: “Be your own advocate for a better life”

My choice to leave the big city was a hard one, but it was crucial for my mental health and for my family. As my late friend Phil Harwick said before he passed, “Take good care of your kids.” I feel as if my transition has helped my kids dramatically by being more involved with daily routines, school activities and making more memories as a family.

You can create a life in which you enjoy home and firehouse life alike. If something isn’t working out, there are options and people to help you. Don’t rely on the department to change things for you. Be your own advocate for a better life. Don’t be afraid of another academy or starting over because it’s all worth it.

Don’t think of the money, the “golden handcuffs” or the toys you can buy for your few days off. Think of the people with whom you’ve built a life and who wait for you to return to them at the end of the day. They are the priority. They deserve our best. In the movie “We Were Soldiers,” Mel Gibson’s character, Colonel Moore, was asked, “What do you think about being a soldier and a father?” His response, “I hope that being good at the one makes me better at the other.” With my recent career adjustment, I believe I’m finally doing the same. 

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