La Verne Magazine
Summer 2001


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 effective."

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 so needed.

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 goals.

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 years,"Jacobs says.

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 unsung hero.



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.