by Erin Grycel
photography by Matt Wright
September 6, 1996. A day that will go down in history, not in elementary school books but in the memoirs of the Benson family. As a small brush fire spread across a northern hillside, Dave Benson, La Verne firefighter, responded to the call, along with his crew. Houses in the cul-de-sac along the side of the canyon were in the fire’s path, and Benson was determined to prevent property damage. Little did he realize that property damage would be the least of his worries in the minutes to follow.
Hoisting himself and the fire hose over a large block wall, he made his way into a group of pine trees that were beginning to burn. With wind and smoke blowing in his face, he was unable to see. Suddenly, a buzzing sound and pop alerted his attention. Then, Benson’s vision went purple.
A 12,000 volt electrical line had fallen on his shoulder and chest. Hearing civilian screams in the background, he dropped the electrically charged hose, from which sparks were shooting off the bail and nozzle. The power line dropped to the ground; the fire hose was projecting water everywhere, and the only thought that danced through Benson’s mind was to tell the engineer not to step off the fire truck, which would lead to his death.
Still conscious, Benson waited 45 minutes for Southern California Edison to secure the electrical lines so the paramedics could safely rescue him. At that moment, he says, “I realized how insignificant you really are in the world; in the blink of an eye, your life is over.”
With a constant mixture of trauma, adrenaline and dangerous, chaotic situations, firefighters in La Verne go beyond the basic nine to five job, devoting 48 hours at a time to the city to bring stability to emergency situations. During their “down hours,” in between response calls, they grocery shop, sleep, eat, exercise, devise practical jokes and counsel one another. This has led the public to classify them as a close-knit family.
“Everybody has a personality that is unique, and we must learn how to interact and work together in close quarters,” says John Chappell, six-year captain of the La Verne Fire Department at Station No. 1 on Third Street in downtown La Verne.
The firefighters do have one characteristic that separates them from the traditional family: they witness disturbing situations on a daily basis, which often times leaves the individuals questioning their job as fire fighters. “We see children suffering or a molestation case, and it is very sobering,” says Dave Benson, paramedic and firefighter.
The firefighters have sessions where they discuss what disturbed them on a call and confide in one another. Often times, they leave those emotional aspects of their job at the station when they return home to their families. “Sometimes, I tell my family about our calls, but I want to protect my children from certain aspects of life…some calls are sheer tragedy of life,” says Chappell.
Trying to forget aspects of a traumatic call is not always easy. “I can still remember my first week. I responded to a helicopter crash on the Cajon Pass. Everyone had died. Obviously, it had an impact on me if I can still recall it,” says Benson.
I am surrounded by an ocean of blue. Navy blue pants, T-shirts and hats. Five firemen and paramedics, dressed in their casual uniforms, sit around the kitchen table at 8 a.m. to listen to the briefing session. After five minutes of listening to acronyms and abbreviations, I realize that the last shift is updating the new shift on the calls that they have responded to within the last 48 hours. “Last night, we got called out four times, right when we were falling asleep, we were woken up by the alarm,” says Kevin. “Jim, the fuel gauge is still broken on the engine; we are going to have to fix that problem.”
A half an hour later, the discussion between the mustache-adorned men comes to a halt. Captain John Chappell, in a quiet but firm voice, announces the agenda for the day. As the rest of the crew listens intently, like a child listens to a father, he says, “All right, it is raining today. For the first hour, I would like us all to work out and exercise. Take showers, and by 10 a.m., we will do equipment checks.”
The sound of barbells clanging together, laughter echoing throughout the room, and the water running in the shower evokes images of high school gym class. The pleasant noise abruptly stops. The fire alarm begins to ring throughout the station, and the voice of the dispatcher is heard over the intercom system.
When the alarm is triggered throughout the department, Keith Thompson, 12-year firefighter, says, “Your main priority is your safety. You do not want to do anything stupid; you listen to the call, get the equipment on and focus on the situation, not on how difficult it might be [to handle].”
Although many of the calls are routine, there is a spectrum of problems that the paramedics and firefighters respond to within the city. “We get people who call because they cannot get a hold of their HMO doctors, but, on the other hand, we are responding to people who are acutely ill,” says Benson. “We are not trying to glorify ourselves, but we are literally reaching into the piles of death.” At that moment, “We do not even know what everyone else is doing; every thought exits out the door, and you are focused,” says Benson.
In comparison to the paramedics, the firefighters find their true exhilaration when responding to a brush or structural fire. “The anticipation we feel when we get called to fight a brush fire is not in a morbid sense. We want the opportunity to perform what we are prepared for … we are prepared to put out fires,” says Chappell.
He is the captain of his crew. “It is a real challenge when we respond to fires. It is a real dynamic situation; I am responsible for the entire incident. I am trying to reduce the loss of people’s lives and all of the objects that are lost when a house is burned down.”
With a minimal staff, eight crew members respond to property fires as opposed to the normal 16 individuals per shift who respond to a call within larger fire departments. “We have to work fast to make a positive impact on a fire,” says Chappell. “Fires, in general, bring us closer together; they are morale boosters.”
“Engine 61, Engine 61, there is a man with chest pains ….” My heart begins to pump; the noises become muffled; my main focus is to climb up into the large fire engine. By the time I finally secure my large oversized yellow jacket (fire gear) and latch my seat belt, the engine already is zooming past residential houses. Unable to see through the headband that fell over my eyes, I realize I had put my siren-muffling headset on backwards. Keith looks over and shares a laugh with the fire crew.
Within seconds, the engine is at the emergency scene. At that moment, the true personalities of the firefighters emerge. The five men rush in and quickly assess the situation. Bob Russell, the paramedic, with a straightforward attitude, begins to ask the middle-aged man about medications. Without delay, he administers nitroglycerin. Dave Benson quickly transcribes all of his answers onto a form sheet and assesses the medical emergency problem. Aggressive and determined, Keith Thompson begins the oxygen line. Jim Portis, personable and helpful with the crew, hurries to bring the gurney into the house. Captain Chappell silently observes his crew. His calm demeanor allows the crew to work effectively and place the family at ease.
In five minutes, the paramedics wheel the man into the rain-pelted street. Curious neighbors peer out of their windows. As I climb back into the fire engine, I begin to experience down time ….
Comparing the relationship between firefighters, John Grapentin, fire safety specialist, says, “The way I look at it is that they are like my brothers. I would do anything for my brother, and if the situation gets serious, I want to know that he will be there for me.” He adds, “When I look at the person across from me on the engine, I know I can trust my life with that partner.”
On occasion, the firefighters are called to emergencies outside of their geographic vicinity, within Los Angles County. Responding to the Los Angeles riots, Keith Thompson and Jim Portis, fire engineer, were placed into a completely unstable situation – the most dangerous call that they had witnessed.”We were dealing with multiple fires, looters and people who thought it was cool to go out and shoot other [individuals]. We looked out for each other more than we do normally,” says Portis.
Thoughts begin to race through my mind. I question what could have been done differently while responding to the call. I had a difficult time climbing out of the engine; how could I have gotten out faster? How could I have dealt with the family if I was one of the firefighters? The crew reassures me that this happens frequently.
When we arrive back at the station, Captain Chappell announces that the schedule has changed. Next task: clean-up and daily chores. With a mop and soapy bucket of water, Keith begins his household duties. “We take turns cleaning the bathroom, sleeping quarters, day room, kitchen and any other extra cleaning. It is really like our second family.”
A lone vacuum stands in the middle of the day room. In a casual tone of voice, Bob says, “Hey, Jim, the vacuum cleaner has been looking for you.” Jim replies, “I am getting to it.” While listening to Bob Marley, Bob scrubs the kitchen counters and the cupboards in a meticulous manner. He mutters, “Now it is clean, and I can make cookies later.”
Captain Chappell’s voice comes over the intercom system. “Five minutes until grocery shopping.” The men look at each other. Keith says, “You came on just the right day for my cooking.”
The desire to follow family tradition, model oneself after an actor in the show “Emergency” or simply help individuals in crisis situations are some of the reasons why individuals choose a profession in firefighting. Russ Genovese, a reserve since 1997, reflects on what pivotal moment directed him to study fire science. “I remember how I helped put out a garage fire with a tiny fire extinguisher. The woman was so grateful, and I totally impacted her life.” He adds, “I think it is a great way to help people, but on the other hand, I am putting my life on the line. I have had a girlfriend break up with me because she could not handle worrying about me while I am working.”
When dealing with highly serious calls, “I try to think that I have done the best that I can; provided the highest level of care. But it is out of my hands when it does not work out. That is the only way I can cope with traumatic situations,” says Grapentin. He adds, “On your down time, after the call, sitting on the engine, you start reflecting and ask, ‘Why did that specific child have to drown; could I have done something differently.’ ”
Dealing with a pediatric emergency, Portis is consumed with even more pressure and responsibility while driving the engine. “Whenever we are dealing with babies or children, our adrenaline runs even faster. Most of the guys are fathers; we want to give them a chance,” he says.
Often times, counseling is the answer to unsolved questions. “You can go to Thompson or the Captain and talk about the situation … you can bawl your eyes out, and they are not judgmental,” says Grapentin.
On the table, there is a spread of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, various condiments and hamburger patties with spicy cheese “cooked to perfection” by Keith. Looking at each individual table setting, I think that I am attending a family barbecue rather than a lunch break at work. “See the way it works here,” says Keith. “The one who cooks does not have to do the dishes. Do you want to do the dishes?” The firefighters begin to joke with each other.
As everyone eats his lunch, the men ask about Bob’s wife and her pregnancy, Dave’s house that was recently built, and Keith’s commute from Lake Arrowhead in the snow.
As I begin to wash off my plate, the alarm rings once again throughout the Department. Immediately, my adrenaline starts. Only this time, the paramedics respond without the Fire Department. The call is in the territory of Station No. 2. I begin to relax again, until the firefighters urge me to witness the equipment check.
As a stress relief system, comical jokes and pranks are frequently devised among the crew members. “We joke and laugh about things that normal people do not laugh at, but that is our coping mechanism,” says Benson. “It might sound cold, but you have to laugh, not dwell on the situation to stay healthy.”
To initiate the new crew members, “we have frozen eggs, poked a hole in them and placed them in the tile over their bed,” says Portis. “Eventually, the eggs thaw out, and the yolk drips on the person.” He laughs, “You never know what we might do.”
Recollecting on the “shower incident,” Benson tries to explain the practical joke in between fits of laughter. “One morning, Bob and Kevin were arguing. As Kevin took a shower, Bob decided to fill a fire extinguisher with ice.”
With excitement in his voice, he continues to recount the incident. “Bob patiently waited in the bathroom for Kevin to turn off the water. As he opened the shower door and reached for his towel, he soaked him with ice cold water. Kevin’s face turned from pleasure, to terror, to anger in two seconds. “The Fire Department was in complete pandemonium. “Slipping on the floor, he went running after Bob,” says Dave. “That was one of the best jokes.”
With a combination of quirky personality traits, close quarter living and common interests, the firefighters have created strong friendships beyond the walls of the fire station. “We all go to the river together, we have dinner nights with our families, and we have gone to the mountains together,” says Thompson. “Most of us have side jobs like woodworking, electrical and plumbing work, so we help each other out at our own houses,” says Portis.
In order to transition themselves from a high stress environment back to the comforts of a family atmosphere, the firefighters find solace in various ways. “Often times, when I come home, I need time away from my wife and three children to adjust myself,”says Chappell. “Then, I can go on with family situations.” From another perspective, Thompson says, “I try hard to separate myself from work and family; [however], my wife is really good to talk with about situations.”
Witness the equipment check! How does one check the compartments on the truck for flares and adapters from 95 feet in the air.
I was hoisted into the basket of the extension ladder on the fire truck. I am shaking not from terror but from the cold wind.
“Try fighting a fire from up here when the Santa Ana winds are blowing,” says Keith, standing in the 4×4 basket at my side.
The ladder rotates around the engine, and I realize at that moment how alone a firefighter can feel at times. Only through experiencing the emergencies can one understand the emotions and thoughts that exist within the minds of the firefighters. Thus, the family mind set that is instilled between the firefighters is essential when dealing with life and death situations.
Every four days, the firefighters leave the security of their homes. They place themselves in a constant emergency atmosphere, trying to control destructive situations. “When I go out the door to work, my wife gives me a hug and a kiss goodbye and tells me to be safe,” says Portis.
With hoses and fire equipment as their safety shield, the men have entered into 2,350 unknown emergency situations within the year. As Portis scans the engines and the fire gear hanging on the brick wall, he says, “We never know what we are going to encounter; none of us dwells on the severity of our job; we dwell on the ability to help people.”