This is a story about an engine, Gilroy E47, and firefighters.
Firefighting can be deadly. The Soberanes fire near Big Sur had burned through 30,000 acres in rugged terrain and claimed its first fatality, a bulldozer operator, when a strike team led by two members of Gilroy Fire Department, Division Chief Chris Weber and Captain Shaun Peyghambary, was called into action last week.
Strike Team XSC 2306A, made up of five like-engines (Palo Alto E654, Belmont E15, Foster City E28, Gilroy E47, and Central County E37) and their crews, joined thousands of fire service personnel in Monterey County, mobilized as part of the statewide mutual aid agreement, which calls on agencies across the state to supply crews, helicopters, engines—all the resources needed to fight the fire.
Gilroy E47, usually at Chestnut Station, one of the city’s three fire stations (the others are Las Animas and Sunrise), is the local agency’s designated strike team Type 1 engine. The other, a Type 3 engine, is equipped for off-road use and based at Las Animas Station.
I learned all this a day before the Soberanes fire started on July 22, and three days before the engine left its home at Chestnut Station, for the base camp at El Toro Park outside Salinas.
Before the engine was called on to shuttle its crew to the deadly blaze, E47 shuttled me, for the day, as part of the department’s ride-along program.
A normal Thursday
Arriving at Chestnut Station promptly at 8:30 a.m., the sun already promising a scorcher, I met Captain Paul Butler, engineer Herb Lee and firefighter/paramedic, James Dempsey, the Chestnut crew for the day.
Lee was outside running through the morning check of all the rigs and equipment, firing up every tool to ensure it was in working order. “All these rigs are ready to go,” he said, during a tour of the truck, a behemoth with a 75-foot ladder, and Engine 47.
All 9-1-1 calls are transmitted through the same dispatch center and in the afternoon, in the middle of a taqueria lunch, I had to drop my burrito and race to the engine with Lee, Butler and Dempsey to respond to an emergency medical call at Gilroy High School.
For a three-person crew, the engineer drives, the captain is in the passenger seat and the firefighter/paramedic sits in the back. While each role has its own particular area of responsibility, the individuals occupying those roles are usually so well-trained, they can step into another role when needed.
“In our agency, every firefighter by the time you are off probation, you are acting engineer qualified,” said Lee. “So to be off probation means the very next day you can be thrown onto any apparatus and you are the engineer for the day. The same way, our engineers are trained to be acting captains. Because we are a smaller agency we have to have that ability to work up.”
There wasn’t much traffic on the way to the school and with sirens blaring intermittently, motorists pulled over well in advance of the approaching engine.
Later, I told Butler, a Gilroy native, how impressed I had been, watching all the cars before us part like the Red Sea. Some motorists even waved as we passed. It was like being in a parade. Is it like this all the time?
With a sigh, Butler admitted it wasn’t always the case. It appears that, unlike what I was taught in Driver’s Ed back in high school, many motorists do not fully pull over to the right side of the road and stop when a fire engine approaches.
We left the tree-lined streets and pulled into the parking lot of Gilroy High, next to the school pool, open for summer hours. Making our way inside, a small crowd of soggy children clutching towels and responsible-looking teens swarmed around a young woman sitting on a plastic chair.
The woman, who soon learned was 27 weeks pregnant, was watching her 5-year-old daughter’s swimming lessons when she started experiencing dizziness and blurry vision. A member of the pool staff called 9-1-1.
While I hovered nearby, fumbling with the tools of my trade—pen, notebook, voice recorder, camera, phone—like an absolute amateur, the emergency team leapt into action and took control of the situation.
Zeroing in on the patient, they knelt down around her and pulled out medical supplies from their bags.
As they quickly worked, Lee launched into a series of spitfire questions to find out who the patient is, what is wrong and how she should be treated. What was she feeling? What was said at her last doctor’s appointment? How many pregnancies has she had? Does she feel the baby kicking?
“There are a number of medical issues you can have as a pregnant woman,” Lee would later say. “We were are also trying to determine if the baby is in jeopardy right now, or is the concern with the [the patient].”
Lee and Dempsey took her vitals. They found her blood sugar was okay, and while her blood pressure was on the low end, it was not a cause for concern.
We had been there less than three minutes and the patient was looking noticeably better. Even as the two responders worked on her and asked her questions, she appeared calm. “I’m glad you are feeling a little better, it’s scary huh?” said Lee.
In the middle of all this activity, an ambulance arrived from Rural Metro, one of four units that serves all of South County, including Gilroy.
Lee introduced the pair of paramedics to the patient as they continued with their assessment.
“If she were having problems with her heart, her heart rate would have increased but blood pressure dropped—we weren’t seeing any of those signs,” Lee said later, after the ambulance had carried the patient away to the hospital for further tests.
“When you are dealing with somebody that is dizzy and lightheaded, and they tell me they are the only person there that can drive and they got their 5-year-old child with them, I don’t want to put them behind the wheel because you might be on the road, so I want to make sure that the rest of the public is safe.”
Back at the station, Lee gave me a tour of Engine 47. Going from compartment to compartment, he showed me all of the tools of the trade: rugged devices; blocks of wood; hoses—so many hoses; portable lighting and the rigs to support it; a motor and generator to run power tools; a circular saw for metal and a chainsaw to cut through roofs; a positive pressure fan that removes the smoke from a structure fire because, as Lee said, “When smoke builds up in a structure, it damages everything it comes in contact with”; a bag of kitty litter to soak up spills, especially useful when responding to auto collisions; rescue bags made out of neoprene that inflate to create clearance between a pinned motorist and their vehicle; a compartment full of medical supplies including a hospital-grade monitor; and the latest, most portable version of the jaws-of-life, which “shaves off seconds where seconds are needed,” said Lee.
There was also a whole compartment full of spare fittings, extra nozzles, wrenches, adaptors, everything that is needed for the engineer to problem-solve on scene.
“There is a team approach to fire service that says when we get on scene, we will work together to solve the problem,” said Lee. “There is so much to know, from firefighting to EMT [emergency medical technician] to extrications from auto accidents to advanced level care of paramedicine.”
And through all of it, is the trusty engine, “the toolbox.” The red vision of power and efficiency that causes all kids at some point to say they want to be a firefighter when they grow up, and for some local Gilroy kids, that is Engine 47, now fighting a wildfire near Big Sur.