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COVER STORY : A Family Tradition : Second- and Third-Generation Schneiders Are Carrying On the Practice of Fighting Fires

August 18, 1994|GORDON DILLOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Firefighting is a family affair.

They're everywhere, these firefighting families, families chock-full of fathers or sons or brothers or uncles or cousins or nephews all dedicated to fighting fires--"putting the wet stuff on the red stuff," as firefighters say. Perhaps more than in any other profession, the desire to become a firefighter seems to be passed on genetically, like a hot spot in the family DNA code.

There aren't any statistics on it, no known scholarly studies. But stop by almost any fire station in the Southeast/Long Beach area, Los Angeles County, or the whole country for that matter, and chances are you'll see the phenomenon in action.

"There's tons of those kinds of families" among about 50,000 paid and volunteer firefighters in California, says Wally Hurst of the California State Firefighters Assn. "The joke is that it's probably some sort of genetic defect." (So far, at least, it's a predominantly male gene: Less than 1% of firefighters statewide are women.)

In Long Beach, Deputy Chief Rick DuRee is the son and grandson of Long Beach firefighters--and he may soon see his own son become a fourth-generation firefighter. In Compton, Fire Chief Milford Fonza, who started his career as the first black firefighter in Iowa, is the father of a firefighter.

Hawthorne Battalion Chief Bruce Bradford is the son-in-law of a former firefighter. His son, Craig, is a Hawthorne firefighter, and Craig's wife, Cathy, is a Long Beach firefighter. In the Los Angeles City Fire Department, there are the Olsen brothers--Raymond, Robert and Richard--all of them current or retired battalion chiefs, all of them the sons of former Battalion Chief Walter E. Olsen.

But of the many firefighting families, in perhaps none does that hot spot in the DNA burn more brightly than in the Schneider firefighting family. Ted, Larry D., Paul P., Howard N., Larry P., Scott, Howard R., Phil, Paul R.--they are or were all firefighters, spanning three generations, accumulating between them almost 2 1/2 centuries of firefighting experience.

And that's not even counting the four firefighting cousins.

You'd be hard-pressed to name a major fire in the Los Angeles area within memory that hasn't had a Schneider or two, or three, fighting it: the Hollywood Park Race Track fire in Inglewood in 1949, the 1961 Bel-Air fire that destroyed 500 homes, the 1965 Watts riots fires, the 1992 riot fires, the Los Angeles firestorms of 1993.

It all started with grandpa Ted.

Ted Schneider started working for the Los Angeles City Fire Department in 1912, a time when firetrucks were still pulled by horses. He was only 17, a year short of the minimum age, but he wangled a job as an "extra man," available when needed. He was paid by the fire.

Ted later began working for the Fire Department full time. In 1923 he moved to the county fire department and began organizing fire districts in what are now Watts, Gardena and Baldwin Hills.

Meanwhile, he and his wife, Adelaide, had five sons. Three of them--Howard N., Larry D. and Paul P.--became Torrance and Los Angeles city and county firefighters. (Another son, Bob, was killed in 1940 when a bulldozer rolled over on him while he was working for the Forest Service clearing a firebreak in the Malibu area.)

Ted Schneider retired in 1955 after more than four decades of firefighting. When he died in 1977, three of his grandsons also had become firefighters. Eventually, five of Ted's grandsons would become firefighters--Larry P. with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, Phil and Paul R. with the Los Angeles County Fire Department at stations in Lakewood, Huntington Park and Willowbrook, among others, and Howard R. and Scott with the Torrance Fire Department.

For the Schneider boys, becoming firefighters seemed like the natural thing to do.

"We all grew up hearing fire bells," says recently retired Torrance Fire Capt. Howard N. Schneider, 62, who spent 40 years with the department. He means that literally: To receive fire calls when the fire company was out of the station, Ted Schneider installed an extension of the firehouse phone in the family home near the corner of 97th Street and Normandie Avenue. Adelaide served as the temporary dispatcher.

"My father lived (at) the fire department," Howard N. Schneider says. "Our whole lives revolved around it."

"I was 6 years old when I discovered I wanted to become a firefighter," says Larry D. Schneider, 66, a Los Angeles City Fire Department battalion chief. "My mother and I were watching Dad fight a fire, and when my mother wasn't looking, I snuck away and climbed up one of the ladders and got on the roof. One of the firemen saw me and grabbed me and carried me down, and of course my mother was horrified. But I knew then that that's what I was going to be."

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