The Santa Clara County Fire Department in Los Altos Hills invited Town Crier Staff Writer Elliott Burr on a ridealong Feb. 9. Following is his account of the day.
It’s 3 a.m. at Santa Clara County Fire Department’s El Monte Station in Los Altos Hills. An alarm sounds, lights flash and it’s off to the races for the four firefighters and their chief, who were, moments ago, sound asleep in their comfy dorm beds.
Responding to a call in the wee hours is pretty typical, according to firefighter Jimmy Pagnella, who’s part of the station’s “A” crew, which rotates 24-hour shifts with two other crews.
“It happens maybe three to four times a week,” he said.
And they get all sorts of calls. From emergency medical services (EMS) at residents’ homes to car accidents to, well, fires – they’ve seen it all.
Battalion Chief Ron Vega said that unpredictability comes with the territory. He’s new to the squad, arriving in July from Saratoga, where he served as assistant chief.
“One night there was a car accident on northbound 280 (nearly a mile from the station),” Vega said.
A vehicle had skidded off the road into an embankment.
“The driver was intoxicated and didn’t know what to do,” he said. “It was about midnight, it was raining and there wasn’t a lot of traffic.
“After we put the driver in the ambulance to go to the hospital and (while) the tow truck was pulling the vehicle up to the roadside, another car came by and did the exact same thing. … He spun off the road in front of my car.”
As prepared as firefighters are for the job, it’s no wonder they pump out jokes as fast as water from those hoses. It provides a respite from the day-to-day stress.
Home away from home
Because the El Monte Station, situated on the Foothill College campus, is the crew’s home away from home, they treat it as such.
Beyond the common room, where the firefighters enjoyed their annual Super Bowl party Feb. 7, is the kitchen. Shawn Jordan, a firefighter/paramedic by trade, prepares a hearty bowl of buffalo chicken salad. The crew had just responded to a medical call. After sending the patient to the hospital under the care of paramedics, they returned to the station for lunch and chitchat.
“It’s like a fraternity here,” said Vega, who began his firefighting career more than 25 years ago. “Our people start here, and they stay here.”
Capt. Pete Sokol said, “We’re just hanging with friends.”
Their jobs require entering places no one else wants to go. Having a sense of humor, they agreed, goes far in surviving as a firefighter.
While performing their regular training exercises in the station, I asked the firefighters what they’re afraid of.
“I’m afraid of heights, dark places, fire and sick people,” firefighter Pagnella said.
To which Sokol added, “So we like to put him on the high-rise fires at night in hospitals.”
Like most fire stations, the El Monte facility boasts a basketball hoop and a small gym with weights. But the El Monte Station’s major claim to fame, according to Vega, is that it is one of only two fire stations in the Santa Clara County Fire Department network with a traditional fire pole.
“We take exercise very seriously,” Vega said.
The crew has a contractor who consults on fitness testing and nutrition.
The banter and socializing are nearly nonstop. That is, until they get a call.
While the crew enjoys a good time, there’s one word that doesn’t exist in the firefighters’ lexicon: “unprepared.”
“Our people have to be prepared,” Vega said. “They can’t get rusty.”
At approximately noon Feb. 9, a medical emergency alarm came in. More than 70 percent of their calls are for EMS assistance. Immediately, the crew hopped in the engine, outfitted with essential medical equipment, such as automatic defibrillators and manual and automatic air pumps for patients with breathing problems.
The crew accesses a complex network of other fire stations, paramedics and doctors in the area. Their location is constantly tracked by the global positioning system, and laptops in every vehicle can display their position. It is important for everyone to be on the same page before arriving on the scene.
“It’s much better to take care of all the details beforehand,” Vega said. “Then you can concentrate on what’s important when you make first contact.”
Once all parties are on scene, everyone works in unison. Most of the communication has happened beforehand, but details such as patients’ medications and insurance providers must be reviewed and discussed.
Time spent before a call equates to remaining calm on arrival.
“We set the tone,” Vega said, adding that it increases patients’ stress levels if the crew arrives frantic.
Of course, there’s always a first time for everything.
“The first time, it’s like a roller coaster,” Jordan said of his early years as a paramedic. “You get all jacked up for it.”
Having many years under one’s belt, however, leads to the ability to control the excitement.
In the morning, before the call, the crew practiced belaying drills with Jordan, their paramedic, to prepare for descending an embankment. Knowing how certain pulleys cause other ties and knots to react is something Sokol said is vital to a successful outing.
In addition to preparing their own skill sets, the crew has an array of vehicles and apparatuses it uses in every situation. With an all-terrain, high-clearance truck, Patrol 14, that can carry more 500 gallons of water and navigate the off-road pathways in Los Altos Hills; a medically equipped engine, Rescue 14; an engine with a 75-foot ladder, Truck 14, which can be used for more than just getting cats out of trees; and a pickup, Battalion 14, they’re covered.
Vega explained that the ladder-equipped engine, manufactured in Pennsylvania, costs somewhere between $400,000 and $500,00 – for the base model. He said it’s what people typically visualize when they think of a fire engine.
More than fighting fires
The title of “firefighter” could be misleading. According to Santa Clara County Fire Department documents, more than 70 percent of the department’s calls are for emergency medical services. Fire and alarm calls make up only 22 percent. The EMS calls include illnesses, injuries, traffic collisions and industrial accidents.
Vega said the town’s median age of 47 is probably indicative of the station’s high volume of EMS calls.
The crew responds to hazardous materials safety calls less than 1 percent of the time.
It’s no mystery what drives these firefighters during their 24-hour, 8 a.m. to 8 a.m. shifts. Humor pervades the brick walls at the El Monte Station. But after they share jokes, save patients and douse fires, it’s a sense of accomplishment that motivates the firefighters to continue on the job.
Patients’ “emergencies, to them, seem this big,” said Sokol, extending his arms horizontally. “For us, it seems relatively small. If we can contribute, the gratitude people show … it’s great.”
The public seems to agree. The Santa Clara County Fire Department annual report shows the department maintained a 97.7 percent satisfaction level for 2008, the most recent data.
“A carpenter builds a house and he has something physical to be proud of,” Vega said. “Saving lives is a triumphant experience for us. It’s always very, very rewarding to be able to say that’s something we did.”
For more information, visit www.lahcfd.com.