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Driving to Vegas? Safety Odds Just Got Better

San Bernardino County is building fire facilities and adding personnel to other remote desert stations, including one along I-15 in Baker.

October 02, 2006|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

BAKER, Calif. — The days of being awoken by the booming "chow time" call at the nearby prison will soon be over for San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Warren Crandall and his crew.

For years, the firefighters have been stationed in tiny bungalows just outside the minimum-security Baker Community Correctional Facility -- close enough for inmates to yell for help when a ball flies over the barbed-wired fence.

Starting in mid-October, the closely knit Baker firefighting crew, charged with covering a desolate stretch of more than 4,000 square miles, including Interstate 15 connecting Southern California to Las Vegas, will work from a new $3.2-million, 9,180-square-foot station.

"I guess the inmates are going to have to find somebody else to help them now," Crandall, 52, said jokingly.

The Baker station, which also added three fire captains this year, is one of a handful of new or refurbished facilities in San Bernardino County receiving makeovers to help bolster coverage and decrease response times in the lightly populated but heavily traveled desert. Supervisors set aside $9 million in December for hiring firefighters, buying fire equipment and expanding desert stations.

The funding will aid firefighters who sometimes travel hours to emergency sites, arriving with few men and often without paramedics to treat the critically wounded.

"This is huge, not just for the Fire Department but for the entire community," Capt. Dan Tellez said. "It's a morale booster to finally have a building for the fire protection services."

At rural stations like Baker, the most common call isn't for fires, but traffic collisions. Every year, firefighters say, more than 14 million motorists drive through Baker, a pit stop of a town about 180 miles northeast of Los Angeles, which says it has the world's tallest thermometer.

The Baker fire crew has responded to about 300 traffic collisions this year and only three structure fires. Seventy people died last year in the Baker station's coverage area, which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

"We have a vast, vast county," said San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus, who spearheaded the funding efforts. "With these new improvements, we hope that response times will be cut and the number of fatalities will also fall."

Baker's Station 53 covers the largest area, but other rural fire stations are also receiving overdue makeovers.

New stations are under construction in Phelan, a small unincorporated area about 30 miles east of Palmdale, and Spring Valley Lake, about seven miles southwest of Victorville. Also, additional full-time paramedics were added to rural stations across the county.

In Needles, a town on the Colorado River, the fire station's sleeping quarters were renovated and three full-time captain positions were added. The station covers much of Interstate 40 and receives about five emergency calls a day.

"Basically the station went from one big open room to becoming a little more private," Battalion Chief Bob Lyons said.

But because few permanent residents live along the desert routes, little tax money is generated locally for improvements.

County officials argued that other states and counties should help offset costs because most people needing assistance lived outside the county. But they relented last year, creating a $2.7-million annual fund to improve emergency services in the desert.

Because the money went unspent in 2005, the county decided to splurge on one-time projects in rural areas.

The improvements come as a much-needed reprieve, especially for the Baker station.

Only a couple of firefighters staff the station, so the crew is augmented by prison inmates who go through special training. Only inmates committed for nonviolent crimes -- and no arsonists -- participate, and are paid $48 a month.

"They do the jobs, but the good ones come in waves," said Crandall, who trains the inmates. "Sometimes you'll get dedicated people. Other times you get inmates just out for the money."

Firefighters in Baker said they had witnessed a number of grisly accidents caused by speeding motorists lulled by the seemingly unchanging scenery of the desert or the anticipation of arriving in Las Vegas or getting home.

"You see so much tragedy that in a way you almost become immune to it," said firefighter Brian McCoy, 23, who commutes more than 200 miles from Chatsworth twice a week to work a 48-hour shift.

"When kids get hurt, though, that's the ones you have empathy for."

Long traveling distances often make rural firefighters miss "the golden hour," the time after injury in which a victim will generally respond to medical treatment but worsen if none is received. Even if the Baker crew arrives quickly, it usually is without a paramedic.

And even with the improvements, the Baker firefighters can still travel for hours to respond to a call. On the seemingly endless road, conversations in the engine can cover topics as varied as sports teams or fire safety.

But on a recent 65-mile run on Interstate 40, the talk turned to a more pertinent subject.

"So what color should the table in the new station be?" Tellez asked firefighters McCoy and James Burkhouse, 42. "Mahogany or gray?"

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jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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