Redondo Fire Department hosts firefighters conference

Firefighters discuss new challenges

400 firefighters gather to share experiences, remember the fallen

by Mark McDermott

Seven months ago, a 15-year-old student at Santana High School took a gun to school and opened fire from the boy’s bathroom, expending 40 bullets, killing two fellow students and wounding 13 others. On Sunday afternoon, Chief Howard Rayon of the Santee Fire Department gave a PowerPoint presentation that explained in clinical detail how his department responded on the day of the shooting.

The business of firefighting has changed greatly since the days of bells, whistles, and horse-drawn fire pumps. The types of incidents which fire departments must be prepared to respond to have multiplied, and so the opportunity to share experiences has become ever more vital. Chief Rayon explained the special challenges his department faced in responding to a situation that not long ago would have seemed unimaginable: a child with a gun in a school.

"In this business, you can’t say that it won’t ever happen again," said Mike McNamee, a visiting fire chief from Worcester, Massachusetts. Chief McNamee spoke ruefully; two years ago his department lost six firefighters to an explosive blaze in a Worcester cold storage plant, and he has come to California in order to share that awful experience with his fellow firefighters.

More than 400 firefighters gathered at Redondo Beach’s Holiday Inn Crown Plaza for the California State Firefighter Association’s 79th annual conference, which was hosted by the Redondo Beach Fire Department. The four day event, which began Saturday morning with a parade and memorial service in honor of the New York Fire Department, also included a keynote address by the legendary chief of the Phoenix Fire Department, Alan Brunacini, who is credited as one of the driving forces of modern firefighting. The mission statement of Brunacini’s department is telling: "Prevent harm, survive, be nice."

The theme of the conference was the safety and survival of firefighters. "It’s how they protect their own," said CSFA general manager Lynn Shannon. "Most of the attention is usually given to the job of protecting others, but this conference is focused on firefighter safety."

The Santee shootings, as tragic as they were, could have been much worse. "We had a lot of luck break our way," said Chief Rayon, whose department sent men into the building within seven minutes of the shootings. The firefighters rushed the school not knowing the status of the shooter inside, but as chance would have it an off-duty police officer happened to be on site and had already detained the boy.

The quick and organized response of the Santee Fire Department helped save the lives of six critically wounded students. The department already had a "multiple casualty" plan in place prior to the incident, and its ability to quickly set up a triage area outside the school and provide rapid medical transport were vital to saving the lives of the gunshot victims.

Redondo Beach Fire Chief Pat Aust said that his department has a similar plan in place, and has even drilled with the school district and other local public safety agencies in order to be prepared for such a scenario. "It’s that terrorist within," he said. "Who expects it to be that 13-year-old kid?"

As for the safety of his own firefighters, Aust is proud to note that in its 109-year history, the department has never suffered a fire-related casualty--this despite the fact that the 1988 Pier fire was the biggest incident in recent South Bay history. But Aust remains wary, and said that the experience shared by other fire chiefs at this conference is instructive to himself and his department. "It just re-emphasizes to our people, don’t get complacent," he said. "It may seem routine, but it’s the simple things that will kill you."

"I want it to go another 109 years," he said. "I want it to say 218 years."

Redondo Beach Fire Chief Pat Aust sounds the "Last Alarm" Saturday morning for the more than 300 New York firefighters who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center. The loss was greater than the total number of lives previously lost in the 144-year-old department’s history. Photo by Kevin Cody

This 1928 Ahrens-Fox pumper is stationed at the Beverly Hills Fire Department Headquarters. Photo by Kevin Cody

San Marino Battalion Chief Chuck Murchie and Capt. Jim Anderson man a 1923 American la France pumper. The City of San Marino bought the engine in 1923 and owned it through 1952 when it was purchased by a private party. When the owner died in 1975 his family donated the pumper back to the San Marino Fire Department. The lettering is 23-carat gold leaf. Photo by Mark McDermott.

This 1902 Steamer was the city of Reno’s first fire engine. It is now owned by GNF Carriages in San Bernardino. Photo by Kevin Cody

This 1967 Big Mack triple combination pumper from New York was restored by Mark and Pam Platt of Van Nuys. Photo by Kevin Cody