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Real-Life Heroes in Make-Believe World

July 10, 1986|RANDY JOHNSON and GINGER MYERS | Johnson and Myers are Los Angeles free-lance writers. and

The Universal City Fire Department occupies an interesting niche among Los Angeles County's 139 firehouses. "At other stations, everything is real until proven false," said firefighter Roger Banta with a smile. "Everything here is false until proven real."

Take the brick partitions that separate the firefighters's bunks at Station 60. Their heritage is a bit suspect. The partitions are not brick but flimsy props from the set of the defunct television show "Emergency!"

But the 12-man firefighting crew's daily duties are real enough. In addition to responding to fire and medical emergencies on the Universal Studios lot, their responsibilities include the tour center, banks, office buildings and the Universal Amphitheatre in the privately owned, 420-acre unincorporated county area.

"We've gotten calls you would never get on the outside," said Capt. Don Letts.

Handle Medical Problems

They have been summoned to fist fights at the nightclubs on the premises and to bomb scares; and they once diagnosed complications from a tubal pregnancy.

With thousands of tourists passing through the studio turnstiles each day--reaching a high of 26,000 per day in the summer--medical problems ranging from minor burns to severe heart attacks are not unusual.

"We see a lot more emergency work than the average general practitioner," said firefighter John Guylas.

The language barrier with foreign tourists sometimes complicates medical treatment. Recently, a German visitor collapsed on the tour.

"He had been drinking beer on his flight to Los Angeles and later at the tour center," said Letts, 45. "He was semi-comatose, and in a nice way we got him to go to the hospital. If you are conscious, we can't force you to go. That's kidnaping."

Drug abuse by patrons of the Universal Amphitheatre also poses a problem for the firefighters. Several months ago they were attempting to treat a woman who was rapidly sliding into unconsciousness. Her boyfriend would not reveal which drugs she had taken.

"They see our badge, and they think we are connected to the Police Department," Letts said.

In 1967, fire engulfed a large portion of the building facades on Universal Studio's back lot.

"It was the very first day on the job for the captain on duty when the call came in," said firefighter Pico Williams, 37. "An overzealous special effects man yanked a hose line, and the captain was accidentally hit on the head by the hose's brass coupling. It was the biggest fire in this studio's history, and the captain spent it on his back, unconscious."

Truck Engulfed in 'Red Sea'

Not all the incidents during the station's 40 year history have been so serious. Several years ago, a visiting fireman, unfamiliar with Universal Studios, drove their fire truck onto the lot and inadvertently became an added tourist attraction.

While closely following a Universal tour tram, the driver apparently became preoccupied listening to the studio guide on the tram's public address system. The truck followed the tram into an exhibit called "The Parting of the Red Sea."

The guide yelled a warning for them to stop as the tram drove out of the parted waters. But it was too late. The "Red Sea" was already rushing back in on their truck.

"The water was over the truck's running boards and rising fast, but they managed to back out just in time," said Guylas. "I think they got a taste of how the Pharaoh felt chasing Moses."

The firefighters working the three, 24-hour revolving shifts, have chosen this station for various personal and professional reasons.

Williams says he has more time to study for promotions than at other, busier firehouses, and he is closer to his home and family.

Jerry Shaver, 50, had spent years working in fire camps with prisoners who assisted in the firefighting. "A lot of the inmates were not easy to work with," he said. "I'd had enough of that, so I transferred here."

Al Chappell, 36, had worked at a hectic dispatch center, and he "wanted to spend some time at a station where the pace was slower."

Letts explained that there are few fires to fight in Universal City because of the intense fire prevention program. Security guards, special effects people and other employees constantly police the sound stages and the back lot for potential fire hazards.

Recently, this scrutiny averted a possible disaster. The interior of a sound stage had been decorated to resemble a forest. An alert special effects person informed the fire department that the foliage did not have the required fireproofing.

"It's a good thing we caught that mistake as soon as we did," said Williams. "The next day, an overhead light blew out, and a shower of sparks came down on those dry plants."

The firefighters of Station 60 rely on the expertise of the special effects person to determine the possible damage inherent in any fire or explosion. Both the effects person and the captain must sign the necessary permit.

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