Fire Station 12 is in that part of San Diego where edgy cops travel in pairs and the boom and crackle of gunfire is common to the night pulse. South of Highway 94 and east of Interstate 5, in this old part of the city, you'll see more people on the streets at midnight than at noon. There are worse ghettos, but kids can grow up here, within sight of the ocean, and never learn to swim. A good job often means dealing drugs. Few people go to Southeast San Diego unless they live or work there. Yet there’s a funny thing. The firefighters at Station 12 haven’t been exiled, they aren’t here to be disciplined or because they lack the seniority to work out of a better station. They are among the best, and they chose this district because ifs busy and they get to use their skills. “It’s Disneyland gone bad," says one fireman.
Albert lives across the street from Station 12, near the intersection of Imperial Avenue and Ozark Street. His ears are tuned to sirens, and his shining eyes watch the coming and going of the big trucks. He is eight and black, with a wiry body and a shy smile. He has learned that the firefighters have free time after the evening meal, unless they’re out on a run. That’s when he comes to visit.
“Little shit is getting to be a nuisance," says Fireman Joe Taormina. But he lets the boy wear his fire helmet and heavy coat. The guys are rough with him, yet kind. They’ve worked on kids his age. kids who have been beaten, stabbed, shot, raped, or pumped full of drugs.
Five out of six runs at this station are medical emergencies.
Dressed in Taormina’s turn-out gear, the coat reaching below his knees. Albert tells the firemen, “Okay, kids, you’ll have to move out of the way.” His gaze roams over the red trucks, the gleaming dials, the ladders and hoses. He tries taking off the helmet. “Hey. fireman, help me. dude.”
Taormina cuffs the boy gently. “It’s easy, dummy.”
Albert grins and jumps onto the back of the truck. “You guys ever play real firemens?”
I’d had a similar thought on my first run as a ride-along in a fire truck. With the sirens screaming and air horn blasting away. I hung on and couldn't suppress a smile. I knew it was someone's misfortune that caused this ride. The adult side of me knew. But sitting in the front seat of a fire truck, running stop lights, with traffic parting before us as we roared up Imperial Avenue, was every kid’s dream come true.
Before we reached the scene that morning, another engine company had the fire under control and we turned back. Though I would witness plenty during several twenty-four-hour shifts at Station 12, on that first run, I was still an Albert.
I suspect there is a certain amount of Albert in most firemen at Station 12, in spite of the grim side of their job. They ’ll tell stories about their eagerness to fight fires, how they trick each other out of using the hose. Captain Jody Rogers says he doesn’t wish anyone the misfortune of a fire. But he grins. “We like putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
Rogers looks like an adult version of a boy hero from Fifties television, wholesome, like one of My Three Sons grown up. He is short, cheerful, and tidy, with curly hair cut close and combed straight back. Though he is forty, he seems younger, a combination of being fit and having an exuberance for his job. Talking about fires, he leans forward a little, balancing on the balls of his feet.
“In a serious fire, a big guy will lose ten to fifteen pounds just sweating,” he says. He has me try on his turn-out gear, heavy yellow pants with wide suspenders, yellow coat that must weigh ten pounds, fire-retardant hood, a face mask for breathing attached to a tank on my back, and. finally, the helmet. It’s a cool morning, my first day at Station 12. but I feel hot and weighted down. I can’t wait to shed the outfit. “Imagine a high-rise fire,” Rogers says. “You've got on all the gear, you’re carrying fifty pounds of hose and running up twenty flights of stairs. After a day like that, you’re whipped."
Rogers pauses, listening to a dispatch call. Three high notes blast through a speaker on the wall, followed by a clipped female voice calling Truck 12 to a structure fire.
It’s for the fire that didn’t need us. and on the slow ride back, I notice how people look at the truck. Mostly the faces are open. Firefighters are part of the big uncaring system, but it’s clear they don’t have the lazy image of other public servants, the corrupt taint of politicians, or the heavy-handed stigma of cops.
The heart of Station 12 is the equipment garage, an area the size of a small warehouse. Three concrete bays hold several trucks, an ambulance, and in one comer, a gym. The rest of this old building with the red tile roof — dormitory, bathroom, kitchen and dining area, and a lounging room called the bullpen — could fit inside this garage.
Rogers opens compartments on the sides of the hook-and-ladder truck. "It’s a big red toolbox,” he says. There are chain saws for cutting holes in roofs to ventilate burning buildings, a device called "jaws” for ripping open wrecked cars to get the people out. There are stretchers, fiberglass splints, first-aid kits like giant tackle boxes, rappelling ropes, axes, hooks, 289 feet of ladders, and the big "stick ” an aerial ladder that telescopes up a hundred feet with a water cannon at the top. None of the tools is subtle, but then there usually isn’t time to worry about the fine points of cutting a hole in a roof, or forcing entry into a burning house, or tearing open a twisted car to pull out a bleeding person.