La Verne Magazine
Life Beside the Flame
by Melinda Sanchez
photography by Lauren Wooding
Iron man under his turnout, Mark Jacobs, veteran special engineer in the
Los Angeles County Fire Department's Pomona station on Temple Avenue, has
raced three times in the Hawaii event.
Every firefighter has a story. A triumph, or even a failure. Through
time, firefighters have also adopted many names. A common connotation to
their title is "Hero." Jeff Peterson and Mark Jacobs, two La Verne
residents and local firefighters have seen and been through it all. They
are the individuals who make their community proud and carry on the honor
in bearing the title of being a firefighter.
Jacobs, a special engineer with the Los Angles County Fire Department,
presently works at the Temple Avenue station in Pomona. He is certified
to drive the engine and run the special equipment the truck carries, such
as the Jaws of Life. He has been a County firefighter for more than 20 years.
Since the spring of 1985, Captain Jeff Peterson has worked for the city
of La Verne Fire Department. He was promoted to captain in 1990.
The difference between a city and county fire station is not all that
large. They both operate under the same type of schedule and have the same
types of tasks to do. One difference is the type of funding that the stations
have. A city station is funded by the city, whereas a county station is
funded by the county. Because of the vast difference between the size of
a city like La Verne and a large county like Los Angeles, small city stations
could be somewhat limited in their resources. Jeff Peterson says, "We
have to be very prudent with our resources, but we're very good at it; we're
So while city stations and Los Angeles County stations are almost the
same as far as operation is concerned, the biggest difference is the feel
of it. Jacobs said that in a city fire station, "You get to know the
city real well, the people, you know where all the streets are, the businesses,
the districts, and you get to know everything there is to know about the
city." Jacobs adds, "For L.A. County, I can go work overtime out
in Lancaster, Malibu or Palmdale, and I don't have a clue as to where I
am, and here I am as the driver saying, 'Where do I go?'" But to Jacobs,
the basic job is the same, "We put out fires, and we help people."
Some city stations do go through the transition and become Los Angeles
County stations, but La Verne is a city that follows tradition and is comfortable
the way things are. Because there are different views concerning what would
be best for La Verne's fire station, it has not switched over to the county
system. However it is not something that is impossible and could be probable
in the future.
One thing is basic to both: The men and women of the stations do what
they do to help others and to serve the community. By sharing this common
goal, no matter the distance between city and county stations, they still
come together to help each other in times of need. An agreement shared by
most fire stations is to go help out if another is short handed during large
or multiple fires. Peterson says that even though La Verne is a city station,
it is always willing to lend and accept a helping hand. "They [another
station] can come help us out, if we need them, and if they need us, we
can help them out," Peterson says.
A day at the La Verne Fire Department would consist of physical training,
equipment checks, classroom training, fire safety inspections and participating
in public education programs. Peterson says that his job as a captain does
not differ much from anyone else's job in the station. He is considered
a mid-level supervisor, who administers employee evaluations and who must
evoke discipline when necessary.
Jacobs says that the greatest thing about being a firefighter is the
work schedule, "because we get 24 hours off, work a total of about
52 hours a week, and only work about 10 days a month." The flexibility
of the schedule is another thing that he thinks is great. Because every
department usually has some form of shift trading system, in the county
it is called 'TS' trade of shift, or shift trade, and one can swap shifts.
"You get someone to work for you, and you work for them. No money changes
hands, just trading time, and that's great if you want to take a two week
vacation," he says.
As a county firefighter, Jacobs has many more opportunities to work
overtime, totaling 62 shifts last year. He says, "We normally work
about 120 shifts a year, so I worked 50 percent more than my base amount
of shifts. That takes a lot of time, because I work 24 hour shifts and normally
work two or three days straight [in a shift]." Then when I get a day
off sometimes I don't do much, maybe sit at home and read, but it always
seems I'm doing something."
According to Peterson, the La Verne Fire Station operates under a pre-assigned
schedule called 48/96, which means 48 hours working (two days) then 96 hours
off (four days). When at first one might think that this is an ideal schedule
with much time off, Peterson is sure to remind all that while on duty he
is subject to being awake and working the full 24 hours of his shift, if
Besides fighting fires as a day job, Peterson is also a father of three,
a husband, and an active community member. He says he enjoys spending time
with his wife Julie, his two daughters Kristen, 8, and Kelsey, 11, and his
son Kurtis, 6. He spends much of his time off watching his children play
various sports games and advocates his wife's avid participation in PTA.
There is also camaraderie at work. Firefighters often pull what are
known as "firehouse pranks." These friendly and jestful jokes
are sometimes focused on the new guy or the rookie. "There's a lot
of pranks that go on in the fire service. It's a way of off loading or venting,
and I think it's a good way of dealing with stress," Peterson says.
However Jacobs thinks that some pranks go too far and end up hurting their
target, by poking fun at his insecurities. The fun-loving pranks are not
intended to hurt, but to allow the fire fighters to bond and feel at home
with one another.
Combined with their efforts to be modest and anonymous, many fire stations
have a rule-press attention requires that one must buy the entire station
ice cream. Although ice cream may not be the favorite pick for every station,
and may be substituted by a round of drinks at some, the fact that fire
fighters do not seek attention is common, and it is well known that when
attention is given, consequences, even tasteful ones, do apply.
The lives of Jeff Peterson and Mark Jacobs revolve around family, vacations
and the occasional fire. Both men entered the profession with altruistic
Peterson says, "[Fire fighting] seemed exciting; it seemed like
something different everyday. It was something I grew to want to do."
Peterson completed his bachelor's degree in 1993 through the University
of La Verne's CAPA program. He is currently matriculated in ULV's public
administration program. Prior to his fire fighting career, Peterson was
a general contractor.
Jacobs was shy 10 units from graduating from California State Polytechnic
University, Pomona when he decided to start his career as a fireman. Studying
to be a biologist, he felt there was nothing ahead for him in that field.
At Cal Poly, he was a gifted player on several water sport teams. It was
during a summer job as a Bonelli Regional Park lifeguard that a fellow lifeguard
friend encouraged him to explore a fire fighting career with him. "I'm
sure every boy thinks of it as a kid, but I never really did, until my college
On probation with the fire station in his first year of service, Jacobs
says he would have missed about 10 weeks of his classes, so he never finished
his degree. "There's a part of me that wishes I had done something
to get it, but it's just a piece of paper, and it doesn't really affect
the pay in my career," he says. "But if I did go back, I would
probably try for a physician's assistant degree."
Most of his days off, Jacobs likes to do some physical training. He
has finished the Hawaii Iron Man Competition three times. He also thinks
it is a good way to relieve stress. "I spend a lot of time working
out, more than most people; last year I was training for the Iron Man just
about every day I had off. I spent four or five hours a day working out.
I'd go out and ride an 80 to 100 mile bike ride, which would take up to
six hours. Then, I'd try to swim, too, and spend about another hour doing
that." Jacobs particularly likes to swim, bike and run when exercising
or training but enjoys working in the yard, and visiting his family when
he just wants to relax.
Jacobs recently completed a bike trip through Europe June 2001 with
his sister and brother-in-law. He has taken numerous such rides across Europe
in the past and is adept in planning the trips, writing letters to hotels
and detailing routes. Having a normal nine to five job, though, he says,
would make trips such as these difficult, but in the unique schedules of
fire fighting, Jacobs finds all the time he needs for his outdoor pursuits,
which, he says, meets the physical demands placed on a firefighter.
Taking up a portion of his time is a lawsuit he is heading up with a
group of home owners in Claremont, where he holds a rental in a condominium
complex. They are suing CalTrans for loss of property value due to the construction
of the 210 freeway. He works with about 20 property owners and acts as a
liaison for the owners and their attorney.
After 12 years of fire fighting service, Jacobs was promoted to the
position of engineer. He believes that his job is the best in the fire service.
He earned it after a written, practical and oral test to see whether he
was qualified for the position. The engineering position is the "second
rung up the ladder, from the captain," he says, "and I always
thought that I would be promoted to captain, but now I'd rather stay where
I am and not have to deal with all the politics and paper work that comes
with the next step up." All that paper work builds up because now fire
stations run more medical calls for traffic accidents, medical assists and
sick people, resulting in a recent increase to 70-80 percent of all calls.
Actual fire calls are down to about 10-15 percent, another five percent
are calls in other categories.
Jacobs believes that not taking chances is the best way to stay safe
as a firefighter. "There's no piece of property that's worth getting
myself hurt. A life, maybe, but a property you can always buy another house
or car; I don't risk my life or an injury for property," he says.
Peterson believes that firefighters are not heroes at all, but that
he only participates in a common task, and that taking risks is just part
of that. Jacobs believes that being a fire fighter is just another occupation.
He says that firefighters are no more heroes then coal miners. "More
people die in the mines, mining coal, probably than firemen," Jacobs
says. He compares the risks he takes in his occupation to that of a miner
who also risks his life daily, and asks, "Are they heroes because they
are dying in their occupation?" Nevertheless, many young people see
the profession as glamorous. Hopeful firefighters can apply to Mt. San Antonio
College, which offers several fire courses, as well as a fire academy.
Whether the title "Firefighter" makes one think of heroes
or common men and women, the fact that they serve others is something significant,
and that makes them stand out. These people place their lives on the line
each day and go to work not knowing what they will be faced with. So, next
time the sirens are howling and that familiar large red truck rushes down
the street, remember those who face the flames and battle the steaming trials
of life are serving their community in more ways than one. They are the
ones whom people sit next to at their children's baseball games, PTA meetings
or share gardening tips with on a Saturday afternoon. Behind the heavy gear
and their courageous efforts stands more than just a man or woman, but an
Captain in the La Verne Fire Department since 1990, Jeff Peterson, a
fireman since 1985, is based at the La Verne Third Street station, which,
he says, responds to an average of four calls a day.