Joining the Varsity
Within a few days of starting my fire service career, I learned that not all fire departments are alike. The department I had joined served only about 30,000 people in an area of only 8 square miles. Not much happened there. Entire shifts would go by without receiving an alarm for any kind of emergency.
As mentioned, before starting with the fire department I worked for a private ambulance company in East LA. It was a sleazy outfit. They paid a dollar an hour with deductions for mealtime and sleeping. About half the time, the paychecks bounced. The boss gave me six months to read the Red Cross Basic First Aid book and pass the test. Meanwhile, he put me in the back of the ambulance with patients (because he didn't trust me to drive).
In spite of all the negatives, we got a lot of calls and every one of them was a learning experience for me. The fatal Kansas farm accident I wrote about in "Dalmatian Tales" (www.jems.com) was still fresh in my memory and I was somehow determined to overcome the apprehension of seeing broken bodies. I conquered the compulsion to throw up when confronted by blood or smelly excretions. I learned how to splint broken limbs and lift patients without hurting them or me. The boss taught me how to immobilize violent patients. But still, there was so much we could NOT do.
In 1957, new firefighters were paid $361 per month. To make a little extra money, I worked at the ambulance company two or three days a month. The boss even let me drive an ambulance on occasion.
I passed my probation under Captain Lawrence and the chief transferred me to station 1 (headquarters) so I could work on the rescue truck. He was aware of my ambulance experience. The rescue truck got more calls than station 2 did but the Monterey Park Fire Department wasn't challenging enough to satisfy my needs. So I applied for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which had nearly 100 stations in all kinds of environments. Then and now, among fire departments in California, LA County was considered the varsity (and I wanted to play on the varsity team).
In '59, I was hired by the County and went through the ten-week recruit training academy. Since Monterey Park used County training manuals, there were few surprises for me in recruit training. I was so proud to be part of that organization. In addition to increased pay ($489 per month), the Captains and Chiefs in the County Fire Department seemed supremely confident and cool. Also, it was clear that many opportunities for challenge and advancement would be available to me.
When we got our station assignments, I was sent to station 11 in Altadena. By this time, I had an Advanced First Aid card and I was a Red Cross first aid instructor. For these reasons, Captain Sam Hancock at station 11 assigned me to the rescue truck.
In August '59, I bought my first home (for $11,000) in the suburbs about 20 miles east of L.A. Later that year, after a romance of six months, I married Pat, a divorced single mother (she had a two-year old boy). So, at age 23, I had a good start on my career, I was working on my education, and had a ready-made family.
In '61, an inspector vacancy occurred in the Fire Prevention Bureau in East Los Angeles. That is a major industrial area and it seemed to me an opportunity to learn a lot about fire codes, building construction, fire cause investigation, chemical processes, etc. Even though it meant working 8-hour days, 40 hours a week (rather than the 24-hour shift schedule), I applied and was accepted. It became a wonderful experience that greatly broadened my knowledge and prepared me for promotional exams. Also in '61, my son Tom was born and we moved to a larger house in the suburb of West Covina ($16,000).
In '63, I competed in a promotional exam process for the position of Firefighter Specialist (Fire Apparatus Engineer). I came out #1 on the list and was assigned to Truck 8 in West Hollywood, the station that was used in the World Premiere of "Emergency!"). It was another great learning experience - being responsible for the ladder truck in a densely populated area of high-rise buildings.
After a year, I decided I wanted some brush fire experience so I transferred to station 82 in LaCanada. There, serving as Engineer for Captain Jim Enright, a savvy brush fire tactician, I drove and pumped my way through two fire seasons. We responded to brush fires all over the county (our longest response was 56 miles, one-way). The lessons learned from Jim served me well in later assignments.
While I was assigned to 82's, my son Andy was born. Also, during this time, I finished my undergraduate education and entered law school (attending night classes and trading time with others to get off duty for school). In August '65, while I was taking my final exam in criminal law, the Watts Riots started. As soon as I arrived home, I was recalled to duty and spent the next 40 hours as the engineer on Engine 282, running from fire to fire throughout south LA.
Both stations 8 and 82 were big houses, with multiple rigs (engines and trucks) and 10 to 12 people on duty. Thus, there was always a lot of activity and plenty of fun and games. To the extent that I could influence the "feeling" of station 51's environment and personal interactions (in my early advice to and consultations with producer Bob Cinader and writers and directors of "Emergency!"), I tried to transfer the experience I had had at stations 8, 82, and others.
The Topanga Chapter
In 1965, the promotional process for Fire Captain was announced. I applied but, because of the demands of law school, I had no time to study for the test. When the list came out, I was #2. All the various experiences, and the discipline, reading comprehension, and logical reasoning that is part of college and graduate education made the difference for me. The following April (at age 29), I was appointed Fire Captain and assigned to station 69 in Topanga Canyon.
At first I was disappointed. I had hoped for an assignment to a busy station in South LA. It was a 42-mile drive from West Covina to Topanga. But then it occurred to me that 69's would be an ideal place to work while finishing law school. Except for an occasional vehicle crash on serpentine Topanga Canyon Blvd., there wasn't much action after 6:00pm most nights. I figured I could get a lot of studying done while on duty.
In the mountainous areas of LA County, Fire Captains are expected to patrol their districts and know the terrain well enough to predict the course and behavior of brush fires in varying wind conditions. Also, while on patrol, they are expected to issue citations for illegal burning or smoking in closed areas, and to encourage residents to clear brush and other combustibles away from their buildings. In order to do all this most of the stations have a patrol pick-up truck in addition to a pumper. Station 69 had two patrol trucks, one for the Captain (Patrol 69) to use and the other for the firefighter/patrolman (Patrol 269).
A few weeks after I was promoted, I was patrolling the area and stumbled onto the Sandstone Ranch. It was about a half mile off the paved road (Saddle Peak Road) and had a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. The ranch was about two miles inland from the coast and about 2,500 feet altitude. As I drove down the dirt drive, I came into a compound that included a very large ranch house with panoramic windows, two guesthouses, and an A-frame building over a 20' x 40' swimming pool. On the hill above the compound was a barn and corrals.
An old Volkswagen was in the carport. Weeds and brush were growing up against the buildings. Eucalyptus leaves were a foot thick in some spots. The place would be impossible to save if a brush fire came through. I knocked on all the doors and could not find anything more than a couple of lazy cats. So I drove back to the station, looked up the property records, and learned that the Sandstone Ranch was in a trusteeship being administered by Security Pacific Bank. I called the trust officer in charge.
The man apologized profusely for the condition of the ranch. "We've had a hard time finding a responsible caretaker for the place," he said. "We can only offer free rent and $200 a month." He went on to explain that they were evicting the guy whose VW was in the carport. I asked if he would consider hiring a local Fire Captain as caretaker. He jumped at the chance.
My wife had been pretty much alone raising the kids. Between my career and school and studying, I wasn't around much (physically or emotionally). I thought she would be thrilled by the opportunity to live on a ranch in the mountains near Malibu. At least I would be commuting three miles to work rather than 42. She went along with it, but then was confronted by the reality of rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the driveway, the loneliness of having no nearby neighbors, the isolation of being ten miles from the nearest store, and the howling of coyotes in the night.
The kids, on the other hand, loved it - and so did I. I set up one of the guesthouses as my study. I would take breaks in my studies during the summer months and go swimming with the kids. We let a lady keep her horses in the barn and she would let the boys ride them. We got a Great Dane puppy, and she grew into a beautiful animal that could run free on the 73-acre ranch. I found a farmer who needed a place to park his tractors and implements. In exchange, he let me use them to keep the weeds and brush under control on the ranch (as often as not, I had one of the boys on my lap while I drove a tractor).
The ranch was for sale the whole time we lived there, and we had sold our home in West Covina. The boys knew that we might have to move when the place sold but we had no place to move to. On one occasion, a realtor called to tell me he'd be bringing a potential buyer to see the place. He asked if I'd keep the kids away from his client. When I asked why, he revealed that my boys frequently would offer to help show the property and then would entertain the visitors with stories about rattlesnakes, overflowing septic tanks, coyotes eating our cats, and the potential for brushfires.
Some of the Topanga experience snuck into my script for Drivers - the public education scene in "Tonapah Canyon" and the kid stuck in a tree at the "Powderhorn Ranch." All good things must come to an end, and the Sandstone Ranch sold after we'd been there about 2-1/2 years. The couple who bought it gave us 30 days to vacate the premises. I offered to move my family into one of the guesthouses and to continue taking care of the place for free. They wanted us gone as soon as possible. Later, we found out why. They intended to turn it into a "resort for swingers" and they didn't want any kids around. Within 30 days, we had purchased a home in Hacienda Heights and vacated the Sandstone Ranch.
During the 70's, the Sandstone became famous (or infamous) and was referred to in Gay Talese's book, "Thy Neighbor's Wife." I'm always careful to point out that we lived there BEFORE it became famous (or infamous). Nonetheless, it was a great experience and the boys - now married with families of their own - periodically mention something about "when we lived on the ranch."
Because I was in law school, and the fire department leadership knew it, they transferred to me at station 69 a succession of people with severe problems (alcoholism, psychosis, etc.). Chief "Red" Meagher, the operations chief, told me he felt I would be able to build a case that could survive a civil service commission hearing. It was another learning experience, and I tried to salvage people before discharging them. Finally, I asked that I not be used as the department's executioner. It was not fair to the rest of my crew and it was making it difficult to concentrate on my studies. In a couple of cases, it was downright dangerous.
Chief Meagher agreed, and the next vacancy that occurred on my crew was filled with a recruit from the training tower. His name was Bob McCullough and he later became one of the most frequently employed technical advisors on the "Emergency!" series. In 1968, we had another vacancy and it "went out to bid" (which means it was made available for anyone with transfer rights to bid on). The successful bidder was a handsome young firefighter named Mike Stoker.
Copyright 1998, James O. Page