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The Fire Bell Versus the Dinner Bell

Restaurant-starved La Habra Heights restricts firefighters to eateries just over the O.C. line -- close enough to answer calls.

August 26, 2004|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

La Habra Heights is not exactly the center of the culinary universe -- just ask members of the town's largely volunteer Fire Department.

After secretly following firefighters to prove that they were crossing into Orange County to go to lunch, the mayor of the small Los Angeles County town demanded they stay within the city limits for their meal breaks.

One problem: The only restaurant in La Habra Heights is a dinner house at a members-only country club.

So, City Council members last week voted 4 to 1 -- with the mayor opposed -- to adopt the limitation with a loophole: Firefighters also may go to lunch along a 2 1/2 -mile stretch of Whittier Boulevard that cuts through La Habra and a bit of Whittier. The gritty street at least offers fast-food outlets, pizza parlors and a couple of Mexican food restaurants.

While firefighters in La Habra Heights -- a community of 6,150 residents with estate-size homes, no sidewalks and a tangle of horse trails -- are calling the rule silly, Mayor Ed Borrowe says it addresses a serious issue.

The mayor said he started his campaign one morning when he saw several city firetrucks rumble into neighboring La Habra, where firefighters pulled up to a Marie Callender's for breakfast.

"I thought they just wanted to stop and bring food back," he said, "but no, everyone was out of town and our equipment was out of town."

Another time he said he saw a crew at a Mexican restaurant on La Habra Boulevard. On another occasion, he saw a firefighter and parked firetruck outside a wedding in Whittier. More recently, Borrowe followed firefighters into a Big 5 sporting goods store on Whittier Boulevard where they were looking at sunglasses, he said.

City officials said the firefighter who attended the wedding was disciplined and that the outing to Big 5 involved purchasing equipment, not browsing for sunglasses.

The City Council ultimately followed Borrowe's lead, but with a more-forgiving dining restriction than the mayor wanted.

He favored a policy that would limit firefighters to take-out or to preparing meals in the mobile home that serves as the city's fire station.

Firefighters said their busy training schedule doesn't allow them much time to cook; they often pick up food or stop for a meal on their way back to the station.

Though La Habra Heights and neighboring La Habra are sometimes confused, there are considerable differences, a fact the no-eat rule seems to underscore.

The Heights, as the locals call it, is a wealthy Los Angeles County horse town where residents once considered banning bicycles because they spooked the horses. The business district consists of a nursery and a real estate office and the lone park is known simply as "The Park." City Hall is an old grade school; a folding table serves as the lectern during council meetings. The Fire Department's headquarters is in an adjacent parking lot.

La Habra is a blue-collar city in north Orange County that offers much of what La Habra Heights doesn't have -- such as dining opportunities.

"It's not a big deal to have a policy, but it's just funny," said Jeff Kerns, a firefighter who volunteers one day a week. "There's nowhere to eat in La Habra Heights."

Borrowe, a retired business owner, conceded that he often dines in Whittier or drives into La Habra to eat at Cat and the Custard Cup.

But, he said, firefighters should have different priorities.

"Their job is to protect us," the mayor said. "How is that protecting the community if they're not there?"

The new dining policy permits on-duty firefighters to leave the city to buy supplies and meals along Whittier Boulevard between Cypress Street and 1st Avenue, a stretch known as "The Corridor." The Fire Department is about 50 yards north of the Orange County line and about a mile from Whittier Boulevard. The firefighters' coverage area includes pockets of unincorporated land in La Habra that border Whittier Boulevard.

The Corridor is a jarring mix of vacant lots, empty offices, auto repair shops, nail salons and restaurants. Mixed in with a transmission repair shop, a tire outlet and a bowling ally, are the China Doll Chinese restaurant, Donut Queen, Molcasalsa Mexican Food and a Marie Callender's.

Fire Chief John Nielsen said firefighters may actually be able to respond to calls more quickly if they are dining on Whittier Boulevard because the street parallels La Habra Heights and is easier to travel than the city's winding two-lane roads.

"We're there to protect the residents and I don't care where they eat," Nielsen said. "We don't have grocery stores, gas stations. We need to go somewhere to get what we need. It's ridiculous."

The Fire Department has three full-time employees -- including the fire chief and a secretary -- 38 part-time employees and 100 volunteers who respond to about 450 calls a year, most of them medical aids.

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