Father-daughter firefighting in Calif.
Defying a traditional father-son role, young women firefighters are carrying on a family tradition and making their fathers proud
By Randi Rossmann
The Press Democrat
TIMBER COVE, Calif. — In his days responding to emergencies on the Sonoma Coast, Timber Cove's Assistant Fire Chief Erich Lynn doesn't often reflect on what it means to have his daughter Nichole working alongside him as a volunteer firefighter.
The pair at times are shoulder-to-shoulder as they respond to a rescue along the rocky shoreline or a Highway 1 collision. Lynn may call out orders in those moments, and when Nichole responds, most times she calls him not "dad" but "chief."
The same goes for Jack Piccinini, a Santa Rosa fire battalion chief and Sebastopol volunteer, whose daughter Gina serves beside him as a Sebastopol volunteer firefighter. The pair have responded together to house fires, car crashes and medical emergencies, and when they do, it is all business.
But, given a moment to say what such father-daughter partnerships mean, the two dads, both seasoned firefighting veterans, share feelings that reveal their pride and wonder at seeing their girls take on the challenging career.
"It's awesome," Piccinini said of Gina's work. "She really does have the passion for this."
Both can even get a little mushy about the whole thing.
"It's pretty cool. Pretty cool," said Lynn, who grew misty eyed as he spoke. "It's a good Father's Day present, just to see her success."
Firefighting is a traditionally male-dominated field and father-son combinations are common throughout Sonoma County.
Less common but not unusual are the female teens and women who, throughout the years, have joined their fathers, grandfathers and husbands in the county's volunteer ranks. Brothers Ron and Ray Lunardi, Occidental's chief and assistant chief, have three daughters between them who volunteer -- making the young women the third generation of Lunardis to serve as a firefighters in Occidental.
"I'm definitely proud of them," Chief Ron Lunardi said of his daughter and two nieces. "They see the same things we see. It's a wake-up call to them, the stuff we've been dealing with."
The Seymour family of Timber Cove is another third-generation firefighting family. Cal Fire dozer operator and Timber Cove volunteer Bill Seymour's two adult daughters are trained volunteers with the coast agency. Brittany Seymour, 25, volunteered for a few years but stopped after a series of tragic calls in a short period of time, her father said. Chelsy, 22, the best friend of Nichole Lynn, is an avid volunteer who is considering a career in the medical field.
"When she's home, it's all about the fire," Bill Seymour said. "It's in her blood."
But rarer still are the daughters who pursue firefighting careers while serving alongside their fathers, such as Nichole Lynn, 21, and Gina Piccinini, 19.
The Lynns are volunteers in the 48-square-mile Timber Cove Fire Protection District, which stretches along Sonoma County's north coast from Meyers Grade to Stewarts Point.
Erich Lynn, 54, has been a volunteer firefighter since he was a teen, serving wherever he lived, including about 20 years along the Sonoma Coast in Timber Cove and Fort Ross. Timber Cove Chief Dennis Meredith called Lynn a highly skilled and respected leader of the tight volunteer corps.
"Back in the day everybody was in the fire department. It was something you did for your community," said the elder Lynn, who works as a tree trimmer and tractor driver.
The volunteers respond to calls that range from rescues and crashes to fires, requests for medical assistance and, occasionally, body recoveries. The calls can come in the middle of a work day or the middle of the night, and the volunteers dedicate a significant chunk of their free time to make sure they are prepared to handle it all as first responders.
On a recent evening, the Lynns, father and daughter, sat at the remote Timber Cove fire station in the coastal hills high above the tiny community, recounting how their paths became entwined in a service they consider a calling.
Nichole Lynn said she realized early that when her dad's pager would sound and he took off she wanted in. It often occurred as he drove her home from school.
"I would sit in the truck and cry when he'd go. I wanted to go with him," she said. "I was 5."
Fast forward 16 years, to an evening earlier this month, and the father and daughter were together on the rocky shoreline of Timber Cove's boat landing, leading a training exercise on how best to get an injured person from the rocks above the shore to safety.
Erich Lynn supervised the group of about 20, mainly volunteers plus park rangers and a sheriff's deputy. A volunteer patient was secured into a protective litter and tied to a metal ladder. The effort involved sliding the ladder along the safest path over the precarious rocks. Working along one side of the ladder, Nichole kept the group apprised of a patient's possible medical needs.
As the light faded and the receding tide brought waves crashing just feet below the group, the rescuers worked with smooth and serious coordination, following the Lynns' directions.
Adding to her emergency response work, the 2012 El Molino High School graduate works for Redcom, the county's emergency fire dispatch center, where she usually dispatches on the graveyard shift.
"I go out on a call at 2 in the morning and I'm talking to her on the radio. For me it's a thrill," her father said.
Nichole is attending Santa Rosa Junior College and soon will complete her associate degree and her Firefighter 1 certification and fire company officer certificate. Since age 18, she has had her emergency medical training license. Nichole also is part of Timber Cove's rescue squad and is a new member of the county's fire investigation task force. And she's helping teach a new crop of teens through Timber Cove fire's explorer program, including her younger sister, Megan, 14.
"It's about helping people, being part of the community," Nichole said. "I can't imagine not doing it."
While she's been determined since childhood to be a firefighter, it took awhile for her father to buy into the idea.
At 14 she joined the firefighter explorer program for The Sea Ranch, about 20 miles up the coast. Similar programs are offered by many fire departments to give teens a chance to get a closer look at the job.
"I was against it," her father said, admitting he feared his headstrong daughter would be disruptive. "This is serious stuff we do. I didn't want her goofing off."
Within a year he realized: "I was sure wrong."
Erich Lynn said that while he's eagerly accepted Nichole's pursuit of firefighting, he's had to ride out a range of emotions as he's watched her progress. "I've watched her go into a burning building and had to think 'OK, let's get this over with.'?"
But some of those initial concerns have faded. He describes Nichole as a fearless young woman with total confidence and a knack for the job. "She's a whiz at ropes," he said, an important skill for many coastal calls.
Nichole said having her father alongside her has been a comfort. Using a "sink or swim" attitude, she said she has always jumped in without hesitation, knowing that if she fell short, her father would be there to "teach me how to swim."
Both acknowledged the father-daughter stuff on the job can be tricky. Nichole mostly remembers to refer him as "chief" when on a call. At times, when she's sitting in the dispatch center, she enjoys the chance to give him direction.
"It's a blast to be able to boss him around," she said.
Her father, sitting beside her in the Timber Cove station, however, did not fail to note, with a smile, that he outranks her.
"I have the last word," Erich Lynn said.
Gina Piccinini was 18 and about to graduate from Analy High School in May 2014 when a house in the west county caught fire.
She was a new volunteer with the Sebastopol Fire Department, and Jack Piccinini found himself riding to the call in a fire engine with his daughter. It was a good moment, he said.
Other firefighters on the call took notice of the pair, Gina in a seat near her father.
"I saw her on the engine with her dad," said Darrin DeCarli, a Gold Ridge battalion chief. "It was pretty neat to see the two of them together."
At the fire, Jack Piccinini helped his daughter adjust her breathing mask as they prepared to carry a water-charged hose inside the burning building.
She had a "big-eyed" look on her face, he said. Just before they went in, Jack Piccinini sought to ease the tension.
"Tomorrow is Mother's Day," he reminded Gina. "Let's not screw up Mother's Day."
He thought it was funny, but Gina just nodded earnestly at him and they went inside.
Gina Piccinini had planned on a career in agriculture after years of raising and showing champion cows through the Future Farmers of America.
But as the youngest of Jack Piccinini's four daughters, she'd grown up with a dad who was not just a career firefighter but a leader in the local firefighting community.
Piccinini, 58, a lifelong Sonoma County resident, started firefighting as a teen in the Sebastopol area. He's worked at the Santa Rosa Fire Department for 41 years, including 31 years as battalion chief, and has volunteered for 35 years in his hometown department of Sebastopol, where he holds a captain's rank.
As part of a statewide management team, he helps oversee suppression efforts on some of California's largest fires. Legions of area firefighters have trained under his supervision.
So, perhaps the call Gina heard for the same career was inevitable.
In a recent interview at the Sebastopol firehouse, the younger Piccinini said she began to think about firefighting as a vocation when she was a junior at Analy. She entered the explorer program for the Gold Ridge Fire Department and attended a weeklong explorer's academy.
With its grueling drills and demands, the academy would either show her firefighting wasn't for her or she'd be hooked. While the week had its challenges, in the end she realized, "How could you pick doing anything else? Where else would I want to be?"
The Santa Rosa Junior College student is working on her associate degree, Firefighter 1 and emergency medical technician certification, and is spending much of her time at the Sebastopol station, ready for calls.
Her father said he happily helps with her training, as he does and has with so many firefighters. But in private moments, he "puts on his dad hat," offering her encouragement or advice like "don't do that again."
He's also grateful there are others in the department and firefighting community who have stepped in to mentor his daughter.
He said Gina's determination and willingness to tackle such a physical, challenging job and handle the tough calls, such as injuries and deaths, has been rewarding to see, but hasn't been a surprise.
"She can do this," he said. "There are lots and lots of proud moments, exciting moments. ... It's like watching a child make first steps."
At a session earlier this month at the Santa Rosa fire training tower, the night's lesson was ventilating roofs. It's a routine and crucial strategy for letting heat and gas out of a burning building. Piccinini worked with his daughter and others on wielding the chainsaw.
During a break, Gina Piccinini said the work alongside her father has led to a special bond between them.
"When I was younger I used to watch him on calls," she said. "And now being out there with him on fires together has been really neat,"
She's also found that being a Piccinini on the fire line carries with it the expectation from some that she already knows what she's doing. Day by day, she's working on that.
"Seeing how good he is with his job I'm hoping I'll be even half of that," Gina Piccinini said. "It's cool we share the same passion. I just try to work hard every day to be even closer to what he is."
(c)2015 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)
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