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Firefighters the Old-Fashioned Way : SIERRA MADRE

May 12, 1991|JOHN SULLAWAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Smith drives a red vehicle to fires. But it's not a firetruck.

It's a refrigerator repair van.

Such is life in the world of Sierra Madre's volunteer firefighters, where bankers, plumbers and business people drop everything at the buzz of a pager to hasten to the front lines of any blaze that strikes their city.

For some of the force's 45 members--including refrigerator repairman Smith, who works in Los Angeles--that means quite a drive.

"I just pick up and go," shrugged Smith, 36, who stows fire coveralls and a mask along with his tools. He does not travel with siren wailing; even when a fire is blazing, Smith has to obey traffic laws on his journeys between work and his hometown.

Sierra Madre's Fire Department is the only all-volunteer force in the San Gabriel Valley, Assistant State Fire Marshal Dave Walizer said. The department responds to the more than 600 fires, disasters and medical emergencies that occur in the city every year, according to Sierra Madre Fire Chief Edward Tracy.

Alerted by radio, pagers or the town's old-fashioned fire siren, close-to-home members of the department scramble out of offices or houses to board one of the city's two Mack firetrucks within minutes.

Because the majority of their calls are medical emergencies, the department's three volunteer paramedics see most of the action. But in multiple-alarm blazes, the department has impressed seasoned professionals.

In 1989, the Fire Department successfully coordinated with departments from six nearby cities in combating Sierra Madre's worst fire in 10 years--a blaze that gutted six buildings, causing an estimated $1 million in damage.

"They hold up their end of the stick," said Arcadia Battalion Chief Don Little, whose personnel fought alongside the Sierra Madre firefighters in the 1989 blaze.

"The only difference between us and other departments is that we don't get paid," said chief Tracy, who works as executive director of contingency planning for Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Although the chief was in London on a business trip during the 1989 fire, he kept in touch with his captains by phone from his hotel room.

But this year, the department may get its biggest test as temperatures rise and the brush in the foothills north of the city becomes combustible, said Richard Snyder, a city fire inspector who is a department volunteer.

"The big problem we're having is from the drought," Snyder said. "It is a big fire hazard up there. With the rains we had a few months ago, that got everything wet and got everything to grow."

As this new plant life dries, he said, the possibility of fire will increase to dangerous levels.

Fortunately, the department has had plenty of practice in fighting brush fires. In keeping with a mutual-aid agreement with other cities in the north San Gabriel Valley, they frequently assist other departments in fighting fires in the canyons above Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte and other communities. Last summer, a four-person crew volunteered to help combat brush fires in Red Bluff in Northern California.

For members of the department, their esprit de corps is almost as important as preparation.

"People are here because they want to be here," Smith said. "Attitudes are up."

Added Paul Hagen, a volunteer who works as a carpenter: "The friendships we've made on the department make a difference in a life hazard. We have to depend on each other's actions."

That attitude helped keep Happy's Wine and Spirits liquor store from burning down in the 1989 blaze, said Judie Soby, assistant manager of the store.

"I think if we had a regular county fire department, we would have lost the block," she said. "There is a caring. We're a very small community here. Everybody knows everybody. We pitch in together."

City Administrator James McRea said the Fire Department "is steeped in history and tradition."

Community organizations regularly help the firefighters raise money through dances, pancake breakfasts and other charity events. The department's budget, $224,000 this fiscal year, is provided by the city to pay for such things as new equipment and engine maintenance.

Larry Fierro, a Los Angeles firefighter who supervises the training of the Sierra Madre department, said members undergo the same grueling physical tests--such as body carries, hose drags and ladder climbs--that are required of Los Angeles firefighters.

Another point of pride among members is the department's quick response time. Members must live in the city, and many work in Sierra Madre as well. Because of this, the department assembles engine crews and regularly responds to fires within three minutes, Fierro said.

"A lot of times we'll have a fire at the north end of (Arcadia), and they're the first ones on the job," said Little, the Arcadia battalion chief.

The Sierra Madre firefighters, who train every Wednesday and on weekends, approach their job with an almost fanatical pride.

Lee Sims, a professional photographer, keeps in shape by donning 70 pounds of firefighting gear and climbing the station's flight of stairs 15 times. Sims, an ex-policeman, will not give his age, admitting only that he is past state retirement age.

Because the vast majority of its alarms are medical calls, the department has trained most of its members as emergency medical technicians who can operate an electrical heart defibrillator.

And from time to time, there are unusual calls.

Firefighters recently rappelled down a 100-foot-deep ravine to rescue a fallen dog.

And there is always the challenge of maintaining a dual career. Sims recalled the time he was called away from a photo shoot in his Arcadia studio for a house fire.

When he returned 45 minutes later, his subjects, a mother and her two sons, were still there.

"I finished the job," he said with a smile.

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