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Jack Smith

Be it land, sea or air, an honorary chief for a day finds that our firefighters are there

May 16, 1985|JACK SMITH

I imagine that the 3 million inhabitants of Los Angeles were, for the most part, unaware of it, but I was honorary fire chief of the Los Angeles City Fire Department last Saturday. All day.

As far as I know, nothing burned down.

It is customary for the department to name an honorary chief every year on Fire Services Recognition Day, and this year I was their choice--evidently because I had been a prominent user of their services.

Last Dec. 16, in fact, a fire department paramedics crew had picked me up at home and taken me to County-USC Medical Center in time to save my life.

It's an experience that tends to make a booster out of a person.

Saturday was a big day. My wife and I saw more of Los Angeles, and from different angles, than most of us will ever see.

Inspector Ed Reed picked us up in front of The Times and drove us out to Station 88, in the Valley near Hansen Dam. This was to be the center of the day's festivities.

Every kind of firefighting vehicle stood on display, and the crowd was thrilled by a demonstration of rappelling, an alpine skill that is very handy in mountain firefighting and rescue operations.

While a helicopter hovered overhead at 80 feet or so, two teams of two men rappelled to the ground by rope, the ropes were cut loose and dropped and the helicopter surged away. Thus, four men can be put on the ground in minutes in an otherwise inaccessible place.

Then another helicopter came in, veered slightly away from the crowd and dropped its load of 350 gallons--nearly 3,000 pounds--of water. It made a great, blue-white, ice-like sheet in the air before it splashed.

The department's chief engineer, Don Manning, met us here with his wife, and he led a party of guests in a convoy of fire trucks to Van Nuys Airport, where we boarded two helicopters for a flight downtown to the roof of City Hall East.

From City Hall we were taken by bus to Station 2, at 1st and Chicago streets in East Los Angeles, one of the city's oldest fire stations. Here we lunched on superb burritos (my wife and I shared three) cooked by John Chavez, a fireman for more than 25 years and a Pico Rivera councilman.

A paramedical ambulance was in the station, and one of our group, Dr. Greg Palmer, who heads the department's paramedic bureau, showed me the miniature emergency hospital it actually is inside.

While we stood there the paramedics got a call, and out they rolled, giving their siren a burst as they broke into 1st Street traffic.

We bused back to City Hall East and went by helicopter to the harbor. By then I was beginning to get the point. The Los Angeles Fire Department--with 104 stations and 49 ambulances--has an enormous terrain to cover, from the mountains to the sea, and including an international airport, a harbor, high-rises, studios, oil wells, 250,000 commercial establishments and 133 square miles of brushland.

At Station 49, in the harbor, we boarded the Ralph J. Scott, a 60-year-old, 100-foot firefighting boat which, with two other fire boats and several smaller rescue craft, patrols 28 miles of waterfront.

With fireman William Dahlquist on the bridge, the Scott eased out of her slip and turned downchannel, going under Vincent Thomas Bridge to midchannel, where we saw one of the other fire boats put on a show.

From her 14 nozzles the boat festooned the sky with great arcs of sea water that soared and shattered and fell in a dazzling spray through which she sailed like a bride in white.

We boarded the helicopters again for a run back to the Valley. Our skipper kept close to the shoreline, so that we saw miles of lovely coves and beaches and inlets that lie close below the peninsula and the palisades and are not often seen. They looked quite deserted, except for some lonely adventurer now and then, picking his way along the rocks.

Mansions with swimming pools and gazebos were perched precariously at the very edge of precipices that hung above great drops to the sea; evidently we are willing to live dangerously to be at the continent's edge.

I was shocked at the desolation of the Playa del Rey area near the airport. It seems a crime that the air corridors overhead could so completely devastate a wonderful part of the Earth.

It was not a warm day, and the beaches were mostly bare. They seemed endless as we moved swiftly above them, quite capable of holding all our millions; but I knew they were fragile, and we had to protect them from pollution and from developments that would screen them off from all but the few.

Santa Monica beach looked clean and tidy with its yellow trash cans set out like polka dots on the sand. From up there, anyway, it looked as if we were not the trashy people we seem to be when seen from ground level.

We flew over the Getty Museum, like some uncovered Caesar's villa with its great reflecting pool, and then left the coast to climb through a canyon of the Santa Monica Mountains, over the top and down to the airport again.

It is a fantastic realm; more fabulous than many an ancient kingdom; more prosperous than many a modern state.

We should indeed appreciate our excellent firemen, who are trying to keep us from burning it down.

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