Firefighter of the Month

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Firefighter / Paramedic Geoffrey Balchowsky

4EC89FC1-BA25-4D20-81FE-13A93CFD25C8The 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.”

Firefighter/ Paramedic Eldon Karratti

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Picture it: New Year’s Day in Pasadena, the air crisp and the sun shining as those who’ve gathered eagerly await the first floral floats of the Rose Parade. It’s a big crowd, and everyone is buzzing with excitement, chattering and bouncing on the balls of their feet. Suddenly, the sense of merriment shifts. A ripple of distress moves through the crowd. Murmurs that someone has collapsed and needs medical assistance. And yet all the roads are filled, with no room for an ambulance.

Who comes speeding to the rescue? The Los Angeles Fire Department Bike Medic Team! This specially trained and certified group of 180 LAFD members is ready to respond to those who need help but are located in places inaccessible to ambulances or other large emergency vehicles.

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Firefighter/ Paramedic Benjamin Arnold

b-arnold-2 When Firefighter/Paramedic Benjamin Arnold joined the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) in 2006, he had no way of knowing his chosen profession would one day take him 7,459 miles away from home.

Born and raised in Southern California, Arnold became a firefighter for the same reasons many of his peers do: the camaraderie, the chance to work with his hands, and the opportunity to help other people.

What sets Arnold apart, however, is his work with the Emergency Volunteers Project (EVP), an Israel-based nonprofit that trains and certifies volunteer teams to deploy to Israel during crises. Since its inception in 2009, EVP has trained more than 950 emergency volunteers and professional first-responders throughout the USA and Israel.

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Captain Chip Cervantes

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Captain Chip Cervantes began his journey to become a firefighter as a teenager, when he joined the LA County Fire Department’s Cadet Program — what has since been named the Explorer Program.

Created for young men and women from ages 14 to 20, the Cadet Program teaches them to work side by side with members of the fire department; as cadets, they participate in trainings, meetings, and occasional ride-alongs. But besides helping them learn about fire service, the program’s main goal — both then and now — is to instill a sense of responsibility for their neighborhood through ongoing community-related activities.

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Firefighter Paramedics Gregory Harvey and Cory McDaniel

 

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Located at 7th and St. Julian Streets in L.A.’s Skid Row district and flanked by encampments of homeless people in all directions, LAFD Fire Station 9 is one of the city’s busiest. For its first responders, 80 calls a day is normal. For Firefighter Paramedics Gregory Harvey and Cory McDaniel, responding to countless medical emergencies is all in a day’s work.

Yet outside their “office,” as they call it, Harvey and McDaniel are both family men living oddly parallel lives. They reside approximately 100 yards away from one another; they’re both married with three young daughters — all under the age of 10 — who go to school together, play together, and await their fathers’ return together. And it’s these girls that inspired Harvey and McDaniel to launch a battalion-wide school supply drive.

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Engineer Darin Laier

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In October 2015, Engineer Darin Laier, who at the time was an LAFD firefighter, was on vacation in Kauai, Hawaii, with his wife and four-year-old triplets. Laier and his family were enjoying an afternoon at Queen’s Bath, an area on the north side of the island. While the spot is advertised to tourists as a calm swimming hole, in the winter months it is notorious for treacherous waves.

As Laier and his family were making their way back from the beach, they spotted a group of three highschool-aged teenagers taking photos on a cluster of rocks. Preoccupied with their cameras, the three failed to realize that with each crash against the rocks, the waves were growing stronger and more threatening. Suddenly, a rogue wave surged against them, engulfing them entirely. While two of the teens were lucky enough to be pushed back against the rock wall behind them, the third, a girl, slipped out of sight, sucked deep into a cavernous pool of aerated water approximately 35 feet below the rocks.

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Firefighter Reuben Chan

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Back in his days at Mount San Antonio Junior College, Reuben Chan wanted to be an architect. But he loved working outside, and balked at the idea of being stuck behind a desk all day.

One afternoon on campus, he came across a booth with information about the fire service. He signed up for a few classes on the spot, eventually took them all, and over the next few years trained to become a firefighter. Since 2000, he has served as a sworn member of the Los Angeles Fire Department, working as a firefighter at Fire Station 85 in Harbor City and Station 64 in Watts, and a peer training instructor at Drill Tower 40.

What sets Chan apart from the length of his service, however, is his clear and purposeful dedication to mentoring, teaching, and inspiring other firefighters — those who serve already as well as those those who dream of doing so one day.

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Captain Eddie Marez

As a boy, Eddie Marez loved interacting with firefighters at community events. In time, his interactions inspired him to join the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Explorer program (now called the Cadet Program). “Being an Explorer made me realize that I liked the firefighter lifestyle, the team atmosphere, and the adrenaline rush of going to an emergency,” he recalls. With that mindset as well as encouragement from the program’s Captain Ralph Rodriguez, Eddie began his first of what has become a 22-year career with the LAFD, where he’s now a captain.

Taking his lead from Captain Rodriguez, Eddie has remained deeply involved with LAFD youth programs. He currently assists in the creation and implementation of the LAFD High School Magnet Program, a four-year program that combines fire service and emergency medicine training and education with the approved high school college-prep curriculum. The first of its kind, it includes fire science classes, first aid and CPR, physical agility training, and leadership training.

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Inspector/Paramedic Gayle Sonoda

Gayle Sonoda

Inspector/Paramedic Gayle Sonoda’s path to the Los Angeles Fire Department was unique. While a student at Chapman University, she served as athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Heat, a charity-supporting football team made up of LAFD firefighters and paramedics. In time, her trainees urged her to join the Department herself, bringing her on ride-alongs and station visits.

Fast forward eight years, and Gayle has made a name for herself on the Department, having completed the paramedic program and been promoted to Fire Inspector at Fire Station 57. She is currently part of the team spearheading LAFD’s innovative Community Risk Reduction (CRR) unit, which aims to raise community awareness of risk reduction through the utilization of metrics, technology, and community partnerships.

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Captain Monica Hall

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As a seasoned soccer and handball player, Monica Hall was used to physical challenges and the benefits of team companionship. But it was her father, a firefighter with the city of Torrance, who first urged her to consider a career in fire service. His suggestion decades ago prompted his daughter’s 23-year (and counting) career with the LADF, where she is currently a Captain and the Drill Master at Drill Tower 40 in San Pedro.

One of two LAFD training centers, Tower 40 reopened in January of 2015 following a five-year hiatus caused by a lack of city funding. Ever since Tower 40 reopened, Captain Hall and her teaching team have been determined to make up for lost time.

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