The incident that inspired Geoffrey Balchowsky to become a firefighter for the Los Angeles Fire Department occurred one sunny summer afternoon in 1989, while he was working as a pool lifeguard in Southern California.
From high on his perch that day, Balchowsky noticed a commotion in the water, and saw a man struggling to stay afloat. Without a thought, he dived in, approached the man, and brought him to safety. Back on land, however, Balchowsky found his work had just begun: The victim had a seizure, and the young lifeguard had to administer CPR to save his life.
Today, almost 30 years later, Balchowsky has been a firefighter for 25 years and a member of the LAFD for 20. He’s currently assigned to LAFD Air Operations, where he serves as a helitack paramedic. Helitack refers to the system of managing and using helicopters and their crews to perform aerial firefighting and other firefighting duties. The helitack post keeps Balchowsky busy, regularly rushing from his station near Van Nuys Airport to respond to emergencies in the Los Angeles hills.
Yet the former lifeguard can’t seem to stay far from the water: For the past 12 years, Balchowsky has also served as a member of the LAFD’s Swift Water Rescue Team. This specialized unit was developed during the 1990s to better respond to water-related incidents. Today the 51-member local unit is part of a statewide team that can be called upon to assist with incidents throughout the state and across the country. Although most of their efforts are focused locally, the team has been deployed to places like New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and more recently to Northern California to assist with the near-bursting Oroville Dam.
Even in times of extreme drought, the Swift Water Rescue Team must be prepared. “Whenever it rains in LA, it rains really quickly,” Balchowsky says, describing the recent flooding of the Sepulveda Basin. The faster rain falls, the faster the channels fill. This kind of flooding, especially along the LA River, targets the city’s homeless population, where fast falling rain traps them in their makeshift homes. In February, during LA’s biggest storms in recent history, Balchowsky and his team performed in 14 different rescues.
Thirty years after the event that jump-started his lifesaving skills, firefighter/paramedic Geoff Balchowsky continues to love his line of work. “If it has to do with water, I want to be there,” he grins. Yet beyond his affection for the aquatic is his love for his team. “These people are top-notch,” he says. “I can’t think of anybody on the team I don’t care for. They are my best friends — my family.”
Basic fire rigs – engines, trucks, rescues, and ambulances – cannot handle wet conditions. According to Geoff, “there’s nothing like a moving river – one wrong move and it’ll kill you.”