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Alhambra firefighters–a day in the life


Alhambra , CA United States

The Station 72 lights start blinking. Alhambra Firefighter Monica Gonzalez stops mid-interview and points to the lights. A few seconds later, over the station loudspeakers, the Verdugo Fire Dispatch in Glendale directs Alhambra’s Station 72 crew to assist paramedics from another station at a nearby residential medical emergency. I have permission to “ride along” as a civilian observer. Two minutes later, I’m inside the fire engine and we are rolling down Valley Boulevard with sirens wailing and lights flashing.

I’m thinking, “This is so cool!”

Back to the beginning … This article gives a glimpse of what it’s like behind the doors of an Alhambra Fire Department (AFD) station, from the perspective of two women firefighters at the Alhambra Fire Department. I first spoke with Monica Gonzalez, who has been a firefighter for 22 years.

Q: Monica, tell us about your work day?

A: I started this shift at 7am. A shift is 48 hours long at the station. We eat and we sleep at the station.

Q: Do you sleep in your “suits”?

A: [Laughs] No, we sleep in individual rooms in our official blue AFD shorts and tee-shirts. When a fire call comes in, we put on our “turnouts” [heavy fire and heat resistant coats and accessory equipment]. Each turnout weighs around 80 pounds. The compressed air tank on our backs lasts about 20 minutes … We’re breathing hard when we fight a fire.

Q: 80 pounds is a lot! How do you keep in shape?

A: Each morning, when we’re not out on a call, we do an hour of intense physical training using our station weight room. We go out on 6-10 calls on a typical day, most of them are medical assistance related.

Q: You eat at the station. Who does the cooking?

A: We take turns. We cook healthy meals. I like making BBQ chicken salad. If we’re walking the streets conducting commercial building fire inspections, we might buy breakfast burritos, so that we can leave quickly, if a call comes in.

Q: You’ve been with the Alhambra Fire Department for 22 years. How did you get this job?

A: The requirements are different now. I started as a volunteer with AFD, attended Foothill Fire Academy, got my firefighter credentials and interviewed with AFD. My classification is firefighter. Today’s new hires must be both firefighter and paramedic certified.

This is when the interview stops and the ride-along begins. The ride-along rules are merely “remain inside the fire engine at the location.” I’m not allowed to accompany the crew inside the residence in order to comply with medical privacy rules and my own safety. This is their way of saying, without saying, “Keep out of the way.”

As we roll, Captain Scott Burnside is in the front passenger seat on the fire engine’s computer getting more information. Crew 72 is a three-person team. Firefighter Cody Vo drives. Monica and I sit behind them. Monica makes sure I have the inside headphones and seat belt on properly. As we roll down Valley Boulevard, the crew is looking out the windows to make sure traffic has moved aside. Thirty minutes later, the emergency is over and we return to the station. I ask and am told that the resident is okay. Our interview resumes.

Q: Monica, on the call we just went out on, if the person had to be transported, where would he or she have been taken?

A: It depends on the nature of the medical emergency. Generally, it will be the closest one–Alhambra or San Gabriel Hospital Emergency Rooms.  If it’s a possible heart-attack, they are taken to Garfield Hospital, which has staff and facilities for heart patients.

Q: Getting back to fires, is it hot inside the turnouts when you are fighting a fire?

A: Inside the turnout, your skin feels like the worst case of sunburn you ever had from the heat.

Q: I see signs on every door separating the fire engine from your indoor work and living areas. They say “no turnouts past this door.” What’s that all about?

A: In a fire, a lot of hazardous chemicals are in the smoke and ashes. Our turnout coats are made of heat resistant materials, but we’ve learned they too may contain chemicals hazardous to health or they become contaminated while fighting fires. Turnouts are cleaned frequently. All our turnouts, tools, vehicles, station and grounds must be kept as clean as possible, at all times, for our own health safety.

Q: How many stations are there in Alhambra?

A: We have four stations total. All have fire suppression vehicles, which we call fire engines. Two stations have Rescue Ambulances (RAs) staffed by Firefighter-Emergency Medical Technicians (Paramedics). There will always be at least one fire engine responding to a call, even medical assistance calls. That’s because we never know how many people may need assistance. There may be as many as three paramedics working in back, while a firefighter drives the RA to the Emergency Room (ER). Vehicle accidents may involve multiple victims.

Q: What happens when you get called to a crime scene involving fire or medical assistance?

A: We will “stage” a safe distance away, usually a few blocks from a crime scene, and wait until law enforcement notifies us that the area is safe to enter.

Q: What’s one of the most difficult things about your job?

A: Our Captains are trained in how to talk to the family of someone who dies. If the victim’s family only speaks Spanish, I translate. If the family speaks Vietnamese, Cody, on our crew, will translate. We don’t have any Mandarin speaking firefighters at this time. Sometimes, we may use the Alhambra Police Department Mandarin translators. Giving and getting bad news is very difficult for everyone.

Q: Monica, one last question. What do you most like doing as a Firefighter?

A: Most fun thing?  I really, really love driving the back end of the big ladder fire engines!

It’s been a great interview, ride-along, and station tour.  I just have to tease her. So I laugh and quickly ask “Who’s hotter … fire guys or police guys?” And of course, Monica smiles and gives the right answer.

I’ve know the second firefighter I’m interviewing, Heather Blais, since she was in elementary school. She was the starting shortstop on our Monterey Park Sports Club co-ed baseball team. Now I’m talking to her about her emergency medical technician training and responsibilities.

Q: My questions for you today, Heather, will be more about the paramedic side of things.  So let’s start with “tell me about your training.”

A: I have a BS from CSU-Northridge, followed by three years at the Rio Hondo Fire Academy. I was also a volunteer with the San Gabriel Fire Department and did a paramedic internship with Alhambra Fire Department. After I graduated with the required certifications, a vacancy opened up with AFD. I applied along with probably hundreds of other candidates. I’ve been full-time Firefighter-Paramedic for the last two years.

Q: Since all the new hires are both firefighters and paramedics, who goes in the fire engine and who goes in the Rescue Ambulance?

A: We’re all cross-trained and certified. We rotate almost all the various duties.

Q: You were an AFD volunteer/intern. Are there any today?

A: Right now, we have about 13 “volunteers.” The high schoolers are called “explorers,” those in their 20s and 30s are called “cadets.”

Q: When you are in back of the Rescue Ambulance transporting a patient, what are you doing?

A: Depends on the nature of the medical emergency. We monitor vital signs like heart and breathing, control bleeding. We administer certain drugs, if required.

Q: Are you talking to the Emergency Room staff over the radio like on TV?

A: No. We communicate over the air with a specially trained nurse at the Arcadia Base Hospital. He or she, in turn, communicates with the hospital ER staff as to who is being brought in and what the medical situation is.

Q: Without discussing personal information, what has been the most difficult paramedic situation you’ve responded to these past two years?

A: We rolled on a serious fall situation involving a very young child. I don’t know the outcome after we handed off to the ER.

Q: You don’t know the outcome?

A: No. Once we hand-off a patient to the ER, we have to get back to the station and be immediately ready for the next call. We’re even cleaning up the back of the RA, as we return to the station. At the station, we do our paperwork, continue cleaning and restock as necessary.

Q: Thanks for all your time and help, Heather. Just one last question. What do you most like doing as a firefighter-paramedic.

A. [Her eyes light up.] I like to fight fires! The adrenaline rush, the helping people, the saving property, the teamwork … I like fighting fires.

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