Firefighters Retire a Relic, But Seek Fresh Recruits

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By Donna Furey | LB Indy

It was a historically significant moment for David Skarman, senior resident officer at Emerald Bay’s fire station, when the air raid siren was silenced last month.

The towers that emitted piercing shrieks were installed to warn communities of air raids during WWII and widely used in smaller towns to summon volunteer firefighters. Over the last 75 years they’ve been slowly phased out.

“The Emerald Bay siren was one of the last to go in California,” said Skarman, who began heeding its call to action from his home in North Laguna in 1992.

When the main gate at Emerald Bay gets remodeled later this year and the air-raid pole comes down, the fire fighters hope to remove the relic to the proposed California Fire Museum planned for the Orange County Great Park.

And volunteer firefighters, too, have gone the way of the siren. Today, a roster of 25 reserve firefighters, who receive stipends and some health benefits, staff the station from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and cover the station at night. Station 11 serves the 977 residents of unincorporated Emerald Bay, one of 79 stations countywide operated by the Orange County Fire Authority. Stations in San Juan Capistrano, Silverado Canyon and Dana Point also operate with reserve forces. Reserve firefighters respond to structure fires, medical emergencies, traffic collisions and rescue situations.

Station 11 reserve firefighters practice their CPR skills; from left standing, Joe Emley, Ali Izadpanah, David Skarman and Harry Gahagen; front, Brennan Slavic, John Mullee and Darren Trudeau.
Station 11 reserve firefighters practice their CPR skills; from left standing, Joe Emley, Ali Izadpanah, David Skarman and Harry Gahagen; front, Brennan Slavic, John Mullee and Darren Trudeau.

Laguna Beach operates its own four-station department to serve a city of 24,000 people. Station 11 differs from many local fire stations, which are staffed around the clock. If an emergency arises after 5 p.m. or before 8 a.m., Station 11 firefighters must first report to the station to suit up and board the fire trucks before they can be on their way. Thus, it is crucial that they live within minutes of Emerald Bay. Instead of the siren, pagers have in recent years summoned Emerald Bay’s firefighters and more recently smart phone messages.

The county fire authority’s mutual aid system dispatches fire engines and paramedics depending on proximity and availability. Laguna Beach firefighters are often called to work alongside Emerald Bay reserve firefighters, providing paramedic and other services as necessary. In a large-scale event, the Emerald Bay reserves can be dispatched by the OC Fire Authority to assist firefighters in Newport or Laguna Beach, said Jeff LaTendresse, Laguna’s fire chief.

When the station’s roster dips below 25 reserve firefighters, as it has now, Skarman shifts focus from firefighting to recruiting in North Laguna. He relies on word of mouth, banners in Emerald Bay or near El Morro School and ads in local papers to seek out the civic minded who have a schedule flexible enough to serve. Applications are taken on line.

Prospective recruits meet at the station on Wednesday evenings when regular on-going, training sessions take place. Candidates are interviewed and their background and physical agility evaluated. Individuals who clear those hurdles receive what Skarman describes as para-military style training twice a week for four months, which is underwritten by the OC Fire Authority. The new recruits come out with an EMT 1 certification, qualified to provide emergency medical services.

Work schedules are created based on the reserves’ availability to staff the station. When an alarm goes out, the entire roster of reserves is summoned. Whoever can respond, does so.

Typically men and women with established careers who want to be of service to their community are sought out. Some recruits also see potential for a career in firefighting and join the reserve force to burnish their resume.

While Skarman would like to minimize turnover, reserve training greatly improves a candidate’s prospects for fulltime work. Over the years, he’s seen several dozen reserves leave for that reason, including one hired by the Laguna Beach department, LaTendresse said.

Serving as a reserve firefighter “is a great way to give back to the community,” said Skarman, 52, who works as a vice president of a title company for Berkshire Hathaway.

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