Firefighter of the Month

News

Dr. Kristen Wheldon

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In the past year, the Los Angeles Fire Department has hired over 250 new firefighters, and promoted close to 150 officers. This influx of new personnel is untrained in the topics of behavioral health, and unable to provide competent peer support services to fellow LAFD members. What’s more, the LAFD Behavioral Health Program, which is HIPPA compliant, currently consists of one fire psychologist to support over 3600 sworn and civilian members. As a result, LAFD members – the individuals we depend on to keep us safe – are at risk for behavioral health issues.

One individual, Dr. Kristen Wheldon, is doing everything she can to care for the first responders who care for us. Hired in 2016, Dr. Wheldon joined the LAFD with a wide array of professional experience – including the study of combat veterans and work with the inmate-patient population at the California Department of Corrections – that has proved to be a valuable asset to the Behavioral Health Program.

Since joining the department more than a year ago, Dr. Wheldon’s primary focus has been to build and oversee the LAFD Peer Support Team. Although her goal is to grow Peer Support to 100 members, currently the team consists of only thirty individuals. Coming from all levels of the department, both sworn and civilian, on the job and retired, these members have undergone 40 hours of training on a variety of behavioral health topics. They also participate in quarterly trainings and monthly meetings to stay up-to-date.

The Peer Support Team is essential to the mental health of the LAFD, as Los Angeles has a shortage of psychologists competent in fire service culture. This puts the pressure on Peer Support – they are responsible for the emotional wellbeing of their brothers and sisters on the job. Every day, firefighters and paramedics are confronted with traumatic situations; they help people on the worst days of their lives. What’s more, the LAFD family has experienced great loss of their own this past year, including fatality fires, training accidents, and suicides.

Unfortunately, Peer Support and other behavioral health services have not grown with department demands – instead they have diminished. While Peer Support Team members are trained in topics such as critical incident response, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, and so forth, Dr. Wheldon is solely responsible for providing direct psychological services to department members and their families. What’s more, she relies on personal resources to do her job.

Fortunately, this fall Dr. Wheldon will be joined by two doctoral students to assist in operating the LAFD Behavioral Health Program. Volunteering 20 hours a week for one year, these students will work on the new “train the trainer cadre,” a group that will supplement the Peer Support Team by providing behavioral health training in fire stations throughout the city. An educator with experience serving as a University Lecturer for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and an instructor for Saddleback and Irvine Valley Colleges, Dr. Wheldon hopes that this program will equip department members with the tools to train others in peer support methods. A specialist in both the short-term and long-term effects of trauma exposure, Dr. Wheldon believes that resiliency begins with awareness, education, and proactive coping mechanisms.

After speaking with Dr. Wheldon, it is clear that she has a plan for the future of the LAFD Behavioral Health Program. The LAFD expects to hire a second psychologist at the start of the new year, but for now, resources are tight and Dr. Wheldon needs community support. Now more than ever, we must care for the first responders who care for us.

 

Engine 8136

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For Southern California, brush fires are no longer limited to just one season. Instead, these wildland fires rage year-round. Though SoCal residents must take the necessary precautions (instructions can be found here), there is no need to fret. Your Los Angeles Fire Department is prepared for this climate change.

In December 2015, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) granted the LAFD five Type III Wildland Fire Engines. Specifically designed to combat wildfires, these 4×4 off-road capable fire engines are used as front-line and mutual-aid resources against brush fires throughout the state. Today these engines are strategically housed at LAFD stations in Los Feliz and the San Fernando Valley. Together, they form what is referred to as a “strike team.”

The recent transition to summer has kept the strike team busy. On Sunday, May 28, more than 150 firefighters, outfitted in brush helmets provided by the LAFD Foundation as a department-wide initiative in 2013, fought a 55-acre brush fire in Brentwood’s Mandeville Canyon. Engine 8136 – one of the five LAFD Type III Wildland Fire Engines – housed at station 35, arrived on scene Sunday afternoon.

Located in Los Feliz, Station 35 does not typically respond to incidents across the city in Mandeville Canyon. But that Sunday, Captain Vincent Alvarado and his crew – Engineer Brian Wall, and Firefighters Blake Harrington and Derek Dahl – spent over seven hours battling the Brentwood brush fire.  Thanks to the joint efforts of the LAFD and LA Country Fire Department, the wildfire was fully contained by late Sunday night, with no lives lost or homes destroyed.

Although divided into 106 stations, the LAFD works as a team to preserve life and property in the city of LA. “There wasn’t just one person that stood out at the Mandeville fire,” admits Captain Alvarado, “everyone together did an incredible job.”

Captain Dustin Clark

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For Captain Dustin Clark, the familial bonds between himself and other firefighters have more meaning than most. The son of a captain who retired with 34 years on the job, and nephew to four uncles with similar stories, Dusty was born and bred into the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Raised in Capistrano Beach, CA, Dusty knew by the age of six that he wanted to spend his life fighting fires. He became a San Clemente Explorer at age 14; at 16, he joined the LAFD Explorer Program — now known as the Cadet Program. Dusty participated in both youth programs simultaneously until he was 18 years old. Soon after, he became a federal firefighter until he joined the LAFD at age 20.

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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.

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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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