La Verne Magazine
An Alarming Household
by Erin Grycel
photography by Matt Wright
Relaxing in the moments before the picnic setting is interrupted by the
emergency alarm, Captain John Chappell (left) and fireman Keith Thompson
follow up grilled hamburgers with a recollection of station pranks.
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
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 Mortis, 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
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 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,"
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 4x4 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."
"Over here, Over here!" calls out a little boy, waving to firefighters
shopping at Albertsons. Thompson and Chappell realize that they are on public
display, 48 hours, from extinguishing fires to waving to children at the
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