Rebuilding Our Firefighters' Resiliency in the Post-Pandemic Era
Firefighters are repeatedly exposed to stressful situations, traumatic experiences, erratic sleep schedules, and extended time away from loved ones. Over time, these factors compound and pose significant risks to our firefighters’ mental health.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 1 in 3 first responders develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In relative LAFD terms, this equates to more than 1,160 members living with PTSD. Their stress, anxiety, and trauma can lead to withdrawal, substance abuse, and other harmful coping behaviors resulting in loneliness, rage, distorted thinking, addiction, and even suicidal ideation.
Fire Chief Kristin Crowley has stated that expanding mental health programs for our firefighters is one of the Department's top priorities. The path towards a healthy and thriving workforce means addressing our firefighters’ well-being by providing resources like peer support and group therapy programs. Together, with partners like the LAFD Foundation, the Department is increasing counseling services for members involved in traumatic events, and growing the break-through Canine Therapy Program.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month - a time to help fight stigmas and rally support for individuals and families coping with mental health challenges. According to Dr. Krystle Madrid, Fire Psychologist and head of the LAFD's Behavioral Health Program, mental health is something everyone should care about year-round.
"The effects of two years’ worth of pandemic stressors and struggles are evident, especially in our firefighters," shared Dr. Madrid. "The wear and tear is real and unrelenting. As a result, we are witnessing a more emotionally raw, less resilient frontline workforce."
On the bright side, many recent challenges including the pandemic, and the political, social justice, economic, and environmental issues have inadvertently helped many realize that "it's okay not to feel okay."
Stress, erratic sleep schedules, health complications, family instability, and general uncertainty can take a toll on one's well-being. It is only natural that prolonged, repeated, or compounding challenges would degrade our firefighters' individual and collective resiliency. "The longer the issues go unaddressed, the greater the risk for something tragic to occur," explained Dr. Madrid.
When help is just a text, email, or phone call away, why do members hesitate to reach out? Firefighters face perceived and self-imposed barriers to seeking help. For many, the culture rooted in strength, bravery, sacrifice, and fearlessness inadvertently fuels reluctance to address mental health concerns.
"Little by little, we have to chip away at the mindset that acknowledging mental health denotes weakness. In fact, it is the opposite," shared Dr. Madrid.
"When you sustain a physical injury like a fracture or severe sprain, you seek medical attention. When you overexert your body during an intense workout, you give yourself a recovery day. There is no shame in either of those cases. It is common sense. The same logic needs to apply to mental health. We need to recondition our firefighters to accept that self-compassion goes hand in hand with their fitness, nutrition, and training regimen."
"Whether you are a firefighter or not, your well-being is directly tied to your mental health. It affects your ability to get through the day-to-day grind and enjoy life," said Dr. Madrid. "We all go through tough times at one point or another. We are all entitled to having our bad days."
Accepting that emotions like anger, fear, and sadness are a fundamental part of life can help make coping with struggles a bit easier. "Practicing small acts of self-compassion can help you identify and understand what is affecting you," shared Dr. Madrid. "Sometimes, pressing the reset button on an emotion is simpler than you may think."
Dr. Madrid shared a helpful tip for how to perform a quick self-check-in. She recommends that next time you wash your hands, ask yourself, 'how am I feeling?' If the answer evokes an emotional response like sad, lonely, defeated, or scared, then follow up by asking yourself, "what can I do to be kind to myself because I'm feeling this way?" The Doctor said that a workout, a hot shower, or an episode of your favorite show, simple little things that you may have done anyway, can produce a significantly different impact when paired with a self-compassion approach.
LAFD Foundation Featured on "Nonprofit on the Rocks" Podcast
LAFD Foundation President Liz Lin joined Matt Kamin, co-founder at Envision Consulting and host of the "Nonprofit on the Rocks" podcast for a candid conversation on LAFD-related issues and topics.
The podcast highlights the LAFD Foundation’s mission to bridge critical funding gaps for needed tools and equipment, the challenges of raising funds in the post-COVID era, the impact of ever-increasing fire seasons, and much more.
CLEAN TURNOUT GEAR KEY TO COMBATTING CANCER
Cancer Is killing firefighters. Cancer is the leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths in America. According to a study by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), as much as 60 percent of career firefighters will die “with their boots off.”
“Everyone one of us knows a firefighter who has died of occupational cancer,” shared Battalion Chief Scott Quinn, who oversees the Los Angeles Fire Department’s (LAFD) Risk Management Section. Quinn’s team is responsible for managing the occupational safety and wellness of the LAFD’s 3,500 members. They oversee the introduction of new physical safety assets, manage the implementation of safety procedures, and constantly search for ways to combat risks of injury or illness.
Quinn explained that up until just a few years ago, firefighters traditionally viewed the condition of their helmets and turnouts as a measure of bravery, toughness, and experience. Wear and tear symbolized greatness. “It used to be that if you had a charred, blackened helmet, or a [turnout] coat that reeked of smoke, you were a badass,” shared Quinn. “As it turned out, my ‘lucky’ jacket was killing me.”
Ironically, smoke has become inherently more dangerous than flames. Modern structures involve many plastic and synthetic materials. When these materials burn, they create far more toxic smoke than natural materials. “The smoke can contain more than 100 different types of chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic,” added Quinn.
Smoke permeates up under their jacket and clings to the body. Toxic soot can settle in the gaps between gear, coating the skin in high levels of potentially carcinogenic compounds, such as phthalates—chemicals commonly used to soften plastics—as well as arsenic, lead, and mercury. “The extreme heat from a fire allows chemicals to enter through their pores,” added Quinn. With every 5 degrees that body temperature rises, skin absorption rates increase by as much 400%.
“The carcinogens building up, lurking in our dirty turnouts were the slow, silent killers,” explained Quinn. “This is why it is so critically important for our members to keep their turnouts clean.”
Quinn expects that through an aggressive, multi-pronged approach, the LAFD can reduce cancer diagnoses related to dermal exposure (such as blood, brain, and multiple organ cancers), similarly to how respiratory cancer diagnoses were curbed by advances in SCBA (breather) practices and banning tobacco use.
“Ongoing education is a huge factor,” explained Quinn. “By explaining the dangers of exposure to others, the risks of storing your dirty gear in the trunk next to your kid’s sports gear, stroller, or diaper bag is how you get the message through.”
The second most important aspect of reducing occupational cancer, according to Chief Quinn, is having the right tools. “Extractors are a tremendous asset in the fight against cancer,” shared Quinn. Extractors are industrial grade washing machines that purge carcinogenic particulates from turnouts with the power and speed of 100-G’s (one hundred times the force of gravity).
“Our eventual goal is to have an extractor at every single fire station. Thanks to the LAFD Foundation we get closer and closer to that goal each year.” The LAFD Foundation aims to place 16 additional extractors at fire stations throughout Los Angeles. The price of the unit, approximately $6,500, is sometimes outweighed by the installation and retrofitting costs, especially at older stations. The benefit of having an extractor at each station improves the frequency of members washing their gear, and reduces the need for firefighters to travel to neighboring stations solely to use the extractor.
For Quinn, and many within the Risk Management Section, the fight to keep firefighters safe is personal. “Ten years ago, my best friend on the job died of kidney cancer. He was a tenured captain. His passing was a defining moment, one that helped redirect the course of my career. Since then, it hasn’t been just a job, it is our mission to keep as few names as possible from being added to the memorial wall. Our work can make a difference for the current and future generations of the LAFD family.”
Farewell Chief Ralph Terrazas
Thank you, Ralph Terrazas, for your unwavering service to the City of Los Angeles for the past 38 years. The Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation has been honored to have collaborated with you to secure essential tools and equipment for the LAFD over the past 8 years. Wishing you an enjoyable and fulfilling retirement ahead.
In honor of his retirement, the LAFD Foundation team asked Chief Terrazas some questions before his departure from the Fire Chief’s Office.
Q & A with Chief Terrazas:
Q: Any plans to celebrate your retirement?
A: Absolutely, I want to show my appreciation to all those who have supported me throughout my career. Therefore, I’ll be taking my family on a vacation. I’ll also be taking my parents to a special dinner. For my LAFD family, I’m treating my headquarters staff to a luncheon and my Chief Officers to a catered lunch following my last “All Chief’s Meeting”. For my retired LAFD family/golf buddies, I’ll be doing something special for them during one of the many golf trips being planned this year.
Q: What are the little things you are going to miss?
A: I’ll miss working on a daily basis with our amazing LAFD civilians and sworn members toward the common goal of protecting the people of Los Angeles.
Q: What is your favorite LAFD tradition?
A: Baskins Robbin's ice cream!
Q: What do I want to be remembered for?
A: That I left the LAFD a little better than I found it.
Q: Any words of wisdom for possible future chiefs coming up in the academy?
A: Think of every assignment as an opportunity to contribute in the best way that you can, to the effectiveness of the LAFD.
Q: Of all the funding projects you have collaborated on with the Foundation, do you have a favorite?
A: Without a doubt, the projects that had a direct correlation to firefighter safety were my favorites. This would include our new structural firefighting gloves, the handheld Thermal Imaging Cameras, and the RS3 Firefighting Robot.
Q: If the current day you could say anything to yourself as a rookie, what would that be?
A: Your childhood dream of becoming an LAFD Firefighter will be even better than you dreamed of!
Muralist Rosie Tos Brings Fire Station Identities to Life
It all started in 2004. A local artist named Rosie Tos stopped by her local fire station (LAFD Station 63) in Venice. The mural specialist sparked a conversation with one of the captains on duty, who shared that their annual inspection was approaching. He explained the outside bench was in too poor of shape to pass.
Once Tos heard this, she immediately offered her creative services, bringing the bench "back to life." Little did she know that this one small project would lead to a prolific career in the fire community spanning throughout the country.
Following the completion of the bench, word traveled quickly within the LAFD of Tos' talent, attention to detail, and competitive pricing. It was not long before stations all over the city were reaching out. But what makes her artwork so unique? Tos understands that each station has its history and personality, just like the community it serves. Before every project, Tos collaborates with the station members to ensure that she incorporates the characteristic details that reflect the station's uniqueness.
"I know I will never become rich doing this… [but] I love to see their faces when the artwork is completed, and I love that they trust me with the design," expressed Tos.
Inspired by the nature of the fire service, Tos is committed to continuing to help enhance a station's appearance while simultaneously instilling a community's pride in its members.
Tos' artwork can be found in fire stations from coast to coast, such as the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA), and New York Fire Department (FDNY). Tos shares, "It is a blessing to have other departments contacting me too, but LAFD will always be the one I enjoy working with the most."
Tos has painted more than 55 LAFD works of art over the past 15 years. More recently, she has learned graphic design and has started designing custom station logos and fun caricatures of firefighters, all of which is on display on her Instagram @Tostos1.
Deputy Chief Armando Hogan's Four Decade Journey to Become LAFFA Firefighter of the Year
Armando Hogan began working at the age of eight. After school, he would run to start his shift at his father’s gas station near the now-closed Robert F. Kennedy Hospital in Los Angeles. Amidst all the bustle, he always liked seeing the fire trucks roll by and thought how cool it would be to become a firefighter one day.
“I learned some valuable life lessons working for my father,” shared Hogan, who is now a Deputy Chief, responsible for overseeing the LAFD’s West Bureau, and the Department’s highest-ranking person of color. “He showed me what it means to have a solid work ethic, to carry myself with confidence, and most importantly, the significance of great customer service.”
Hogan went from stocking shelves, pumping gas, and counting-back change to leading three battalions, 20 fire stations, and over 700 uniformed members. His 39-year journey with the LAFD has earned him the respect and admiration of his subordinates, colleagues, and superiors. So much so that Deputy Chief Hogan was named the 2021 Firefighter of the Year by the Los Angeles City Firefighters Association (LAFFA).
Hogan has notched some memorable milestones throughout his impressive career, though the role he recalls most fondly was when he became an Inspector with the Fire Prevention Bureau. “I promoted to inspector in 1990, and it was one of my proudest moments,” expressed Hogan. “This was special for several reasons. One, I wanted to make my captains and mentors proud. Two, I wanted to show the doubters they were wrong. Third, and most importantly, I did it for myself and to show other young black firefighters that we had the power to shape our own futures in this Department.”
While his LAFD journey has been overwhelmingly positive, Hogan lamented that the ensuing decades, primarily his early years, were pocked with racial interactions. According to Hogan, the subtle occurrences were the most upsetting. “The blatant outbursts, bullying, or hazing did not sting as much as the underhanded comments about growing up as a ‘local’ or the ‘those people’ remarks,” shared the Deputy Chief. “Those were the types of revelatory comments that reminded you how things really were. But they were also the motivation for us to grow, pursue promotions and advance into leadership roles.”
With experience comes patience, perspective, and wisdom. Hogan’s four decades with the Department have shaped his approach to addressing race and racism issues by focusing on fairness, common sense, and respect. “As a young man, I was much more militant in how I handled confrontations,” revealed Hogan. “Thankfully, my mentors taught me an invaluable lesson early on - Never be guilty of what you accuse. If you don’t like racism, then don’t be a racist.”
More than 65 years after the Department was integrated, Hogan and other black LAFD leaders continue working to shift mindsets through dialogue, collaboration, and building consensus. He explained that uncomfortable conversations must still take place when someone or something needs to be addressed.
“We cannot shy away from those awkward conversations because the understanding that comes from those discussions helps us evolve and move forward. In many cases, we address issues where one party was completely unaware of their questionable remarks or behavior. Thankfully, the Department sees the value in embracing this approach, and these candid conversations often turn into moments of clarity and growth for all involved.”
Hogan sees true equality as a moving target. “We are getting closer and closer to fully reflecting the racial and ethnic makeup of this beautiful city,” expressed Hogan. “This administration has been more proactive than any other in promoting people of color. When I came on the job, no one on the interview boards looked like me. Today on any given day, leadership roles are filled with people of all colors and backgrounds.”
To ensure the LAFD continues its positive strides, Hogan describes how his fellow chiefs embrace the responsibility of educating, coaching, and mentoring those currently walking alongside them. “We have to model the behavior we want to see in our members. We’ll get there. I have a good feeling about it,” said Chief Hogan with a smile.
Familiar Faces Call for Donations to Fund Life-Saving Equipment
THANK YOU to Pauley Perrette for assembling a star-studded call to action to help the LAFD!
Please join these familiar faces in supporting our firefighters and paramedics. Donate today to help secure the tools and equipment they rely on to protect homes and save lives.
Donations help the LAFD Foundation fulfill needs for critical equipment such as:
- Night vision goggles for the LAFD's helicopter pilots
- Chainsaws and protective gear for wildfire hand crews
- Life-saving automated external defibrillators to help patients experiencing cardiac emergencies
Click here to view the LAFD Foundation's funding priorities, or click the button below to contribute now.
Members of FEMA's California Task Force 1 at the site of the World Trade Center in 2001.
Remembering Ground Zero
20 Year Anniversary | 9/11 Look Back
Twenty years ago, LAFD member Steve Hissong recalled a sense of disbelief as he watched the news coverage of a Boeing 767 which had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. He sat glued to the television watching what appeared to be a tragic accident.
Nearly 20 minutes later, he witnessed the second plane collide with the South Tower, and at that moment, he was filled with dread. "This was no accident," shared Hissong. "It was clear that this was deliberate… And I immediately thought we're next."
His heart sank and his head spun. Hissong, then a Captain I assigned to Fire Station 20 in Echo Park, could not make sense of what he had just seen. As the morning progressed, his thoughts bounced between the events unfolding in New York and Washington D.C. and the vulnerability of possible targets in Los Angeles.
"The call came in about half an hour after the buildings collapsed," said Hissong. "My colleague phoned and said we're going; it's time to go to work." At the time, Hissong was part of the relatively new FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Search and Rescue California Task Force 1.
The Task Force was comprised of 66 members, almost entirely LAFD-sworn personnel and a select few specialized civilians. Hissong and his teammates were instructed to pack their gear and head to Fire Station 88 in Sherman Oaks to prepare for deployment.
"It was particularly tough to separate from our families," shared Hissong. "This wasn't like a wildfire deployment or other big natural disaster like what we were used to. Saying goodbye to my wife and two young kids at the time was really tough. I hated leaving them at such an unstable time." Surprisingly, Hissong recalls that switching his mindset into work mode helped block out much of the fear and uncertainty that his family, teammates, and the country at large were struggling to process.
In the late-night hours of September 11, 2001, the task force filed onto buses at Station 88 and convoyed to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, where they boarded a military transport plane bound for Fort Dix in New Jersey. From Fort Dix, the task force piled into waiting buses and drove North to New York's Javits Convention Center – FEMA's staging area for the response efforts. The road in was stacked for blocks with fire trucks and emergency response vehicles funneling into the city.
The following morning, Hissong and teammates advanced to an operating base two blocks from Ground Zero. "The drive into the convention center was somber, but we remained optimistic that we would find survivors," recalled Hissong. "We had trained extensively, and we had some of the brightest and most experienced Search and Rescue experts on our team. The drive from the convention center to the operating base delivered a harsh reality check. The streets were lined with a sea of missing persons notes and masses of mourning New Yorkers. It was unlike anything we had ever seen. It's hard to explain, but seeing all that made it personal for us, it gave us a deeper purpose."
The Task Force began their first 12-hour shift on Thursday, two days after the attack. "It was a two-block walk from the operating base to Ground Zero… and It felt like the longest walk of my life," recounted Hissong. "The collapse had covered everything, literally everything, in a coating of dust. It was surreal, like walking through a movie set. Everything was just life-less shades of gray."
As the crew neared the remnants of the towers, the gravity of their task settled in. "No amount of training could have prepared us for what we saw. We flew to New York to help find survivors. Once we laid eyes on the site, it hit everyone simultaneously – this was no longer a rescue operation. The buildings and everything within was completely pulverized. But we had a job to do, and we owed it the members of the FDNY (New York City Fire Department) that were out there working themselves ragged, desperately trying to help their city."
For the next two weeks, the task force would spend 12-16 hours per day meticulously sifting through the rubble to recover traces of the nearly 3,000 victims. The frustration set in hard and fast. Even though these were experienced Search and Rescue specialists, finding anything in that degree of destruction was close to impossible. "Mentally and emotionally, it was beyond hard. Knowing that the world was watching made it even harder," shared Hissong. "Providing closure for the victims' families became our goal, and that's what kept us going."
Looking back, Hissong is grateful for having had the opportunity to deploy to Ground Zero, for the bonds he strengthened with his fellow LAFD task force members, and for the life-long friendships forged with members of the FDNY.
"This experience changed me, and it changed the lives of everyone who worked it. These events affected an entire nation. Telling our stories helps keep the memories alive for the 343 FDNY members we lost that day and the thousands of others lost in these horrific attacks. With everything happening in the world today, we would do well to remember how that felt, and how it brought a country together to heal. Maybe recapturing some of that spirit of unity would do a little good for all of us."
Steve Hissong is an Assistant Chief for the LAFD, responsible for overseeing the Training Division.
LAFD FOUNDATION LAUNCHES HOWLING HEROES MASCOT CONTEST
Nominate your dog to be the official LAFD K-9 mascot. Proceeds to help fund the LAFD’s Canine Therapy Program.
Los Angeles, CA | March 8, 2021 - Calling all courageous canines! The Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation is launching the first-ever Howling Heroes contest to find the LAFD’s official canine K-9 mascot. Submissions are open to the public and all are welcome to nominate their dog/s.
Participation is fun and easy. Simply upload a photo of your pup with a brief description about what makes them a hero. Then, friends and family can show their support by voting for your dog.
Howling Heroes Contest Details
- Contest opens Monday, March 8th, and ends Thursday, April 8th
- $10 Suggested donation for each nomination
- Only $1 for each supporting vote
- Visit www.supportlafd.org/howling to enter
The top three contest winners will receive a pawsome gift basket generously donated by Petco. The top 10 canine fundraisers will be submitted to LAFD Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas and a panel of judges who will select the top Howling Hero!
Howling Hero 1st Place Prizes Include:
- Receive bragging rights, LAFD swag, and a Petco gift basket
- Have a pet photo session with Charlie Nunn Photography
- Enjoy recognition as the LAFD mascot on all LAFD Foundation social media channels, website and e-newsletter
- Join us at different LAFD events throughout the year
Funds raised will support the LAFD’s new canine therapy program to help firefighters cope with stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “We can’t wait to see the see the submissions roll in,” shared Battalion Chief Stacy Gerlich, Executive Officer for the LAFD’s Administrative Operations. “Our community is going to have a blast with the Howling Heroes contest, and at the same time, they will be helping to support our new canine therapy program. This is going to give us a huge boost in our fight against depression, PTSD and firefighter suicides.”
Special thanks to presenting sponsor, Farmers Insurance for supporting the inaugural Howling Heroes contest!
About the Canine Therapy Program
Beyond the exhausting physical rigors of their workload, firefighters also endure significant stress and trauma. To help alleviate stress, anxiety, and even PTSD, the LAFD recently initiated its Canine Therapy Program.
Therapy dogs can be deployed to critical incidents and situations to help firefighters manage the heavy stress and emotions that stem from the tragic incidents they frequently encounter. These specially trained dogs comfort firefighters in times of crisis and make coping with trauma a bit easier.
Currently, the LAFD has a single therapy dog to assist all 3,500 firefighters. The LAFD Foundation’s goal is to raise $30,000 to help cover training costs for an additional dog, plus medical care, and general needs of both dogs for the first year of this program.
LAFD Unveils New RS3 Firefighting Robot
On Tuesday, October 13, 2020, the Los Angeles City Fire Department debuted the first robotic firefighting vehicle in the U.S., putting it to use on its first day in service.
The Thermite RS3 (manufactured by Textron: Howe & Howe Technologies) is a compact, low-center of gravity, wide chassis, industrial robotic firefighting vehicle. It is capable of flowing 2,500 gallons per minute and is remotely operated with a controller which provides high-definition video feedback for ultimate maneuverability in difficult conditions.
Coincidentally, the RS3 saw its first deployment the same day it was scheduled to be introduced to the public. The RS3 was spotted at an early morning Major Emergency commercial structure fire in downtown Los Angeles on October 13th, helping with interior fire operations.
The LAFD Foundation was able to secure this incredible technological resource for the LAFD thanks to generous contributions from the Musk Foundation and the Tides Foundation.
The RS3 will be housed at a Downtown-area fire station as a part of the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force.
Board Member Spotlight: Dean Ulrich
Meet Dean Ulrich, LAFD Foundation board member and retired LAFD member. Dean spent three and half decades serving the people of Los Angeles. He held many posts over the course an illustrious career, retiring in 2018 as an assistant chief and the LAFD operations officer for Los Angeles International Airport.
Shortly after hanging up his uniform, Dean joined the Foundation board, and brought a wealth of experience to the LAFD’s official non-profit partner. Dean’s leadership is particularly beneficial in advancing the Adopt-A-Fire-Station (AAFS) program. He has been invaluable in sharing his in-depth knowledge of the department’s needs and operations.
In fact, Dean was a key figure in establishing the groundwork for what would grow into a department-wide program affecting life at all 106 fire stations. In the late 1990s, he was the captain assigned to Fire Station 19 in Brentwood. “At the time, it was not the most desirable post. The station was constructed in 1949. It had been in service for close to fifty years by the time I arrived there. The station was in serious need of repairs and upgrades to basic amenities,” recalled Dean.
“We made multiple attempts to address the station needs, going through the appropriate processes. Each time we received the same response, that there simply wasn’t enough in the budget to handle it,” added Dean. “It was left up to us to try to figure something out.”
Dean and his colleagues reached out to the local newspaper for help. “We called the Brentwood News and told them about our situation, and it took off from there. Local businesses and residents rallied to help us. We ended up raising $250,000 from our community for station improvements.”
News of Station 19’s good fortune spread quickly across the city. It was not long before captains from other stations were contacting Dean to ask for guidance, hoping they might replicate the approach. “It was fascinating to see different communities embracing their fire stations, but this grassroots method also created logistical challenges and some legal concerns.”
An independent non-profit organization was eventually established to help manage community support for fire stations across the city. In 2010, the managing of the AAFS program transitioned to the LAFD Foundation. This past year, the Foundation provided more than $1,700,000 in equipment replacements and improvements to the fire stations.
“It is amazing that 23 years later, the Adopt-A-Fire-Station program is going strong,” shared Dean. “I’m grateful I played a small part at the onset and am grateful that I can continue to help this program grow in my role with the Foundation.”
RECOVERING FROM COVID: Firefighter Noe Lopez’s Harrowing Account
Firefighter Noe Lopez is a 20-year veteran of the LAFD. The San Pedro native has seen all types of incidents and traumatic experiences while serving our communities. However, nothing could have prepared him for how contracting COVID-19 would impact his family.
Lopez woke up on a Friday morning with a searing pain in his throat. It was March 27th, the day after working a typical shift at Fire Station 36 (San Pedro, CA). He recalls telling his wife, Bonnie, that it felt like an ugly case of strep. Still, given the range of questionable incidents he’d responded to lately, he figured it was worth getting tested if his symptoms didn’t quickly subside.
The next day, Lopez phoned in sick and reported to the LAFD testing site near Dodger Stadium.
At that point, the anxiety of waiting for his results felt worse than his physical symptoms. He headed home, hoping some much-deserved rest would help speed along his recovery.
In the two weeks prior, Lopez had responded to numerous incidents that involved, or “potentially” involved COVID patients – including dozens of EMS calls, and a slight uptick in medical calls involving ill seniors.
Lopez was part of the first-in crew on a call to assist an ill inmate at Terminal Island Prison – where shortly after, the virus prompted a mass evacuation after close to 700 confirmed COVID cases. He also responded to several incidents involving severely ill patients on cruise ships at the port.
In the days leading up to FF Lopez receiving his test results, Bonnie began experiencing some stronger-than-usual allergy-type symptoms. She decided not to take any chances and booked her testing appointment. Noe was already self-quarantining at home, but she needed to ensure it was safe for her to continue interacting with their son and live-in niece.
Oddly enough, Bonnie’s testing results arrived before Noe’s. She had tested positive. “It was an emotional gut punch,” expressed Noe. “I was in disbelief that this was probably my fault. I’d brought this on my family. You know there are certain risks with this job, but I had really hoped I could have prevented bringing this home.”
Bonnie was one of the fortunate ones. Her symptoms varied daily, but never advanced beyond a stuffy nose, itchy throat, and watery eyes. Meanwhile, Noe’s condition was worsening quickly. By the time his results arrived two days after Bonnie’s, it served as confirmation of what they had suspected.
“You name it, it hit me,” remarked Noe. “I had it all - body aches, chills, joint pain, loss of taste, smell and appetite. I could not sleep. And when I did manage to drift off for a few hours, I was hit with those hallucinogenic nightmares. Crazy stuff. But managing the fever was the hardest part.”
“Like clockwork, we had to cover him with cold packs, and give him Tylenol every four hours,” Bonnie shared. As the effects of the Tylenol wore off, Noe’s temperature would skyrocket to 103.8° F. Noe and Bonnie’s daughter, an RN, would also routinely help check the oxygen levels in her dad’s blood. Normal pulse oximeter readings usually range from 95 to 100% - on day nine, Noe’s dropped to 88%.
At this point, Bonnie had enough. She insisted on taking him to the hospital. He mustered enough strength for a quick shower and was driven by his wife and son to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center. He was immediately admitted and prepared for transfer to a Torrance-area hospital better equipped to handle his condition.
Noe explained that he went along with going to the hospital to appease his family. He had no idea the advancing hypoxia was inhibiting his mental clarity. During the intake process, he learned that had he delayed seeking treatment by just one more day, he would have needed a breathing tube inserted through his windpipe.
FF Lopez spent the next four days bedridden in the hospital. Chest x-rays revealed pneumonia in both lungs. He was administered the immunosuppressive drug - hydroxychloroquine, a Z-Pak of antibiotics, fever reducer, and pain medications.
Understandably, Bonnie and his children were not permitted to visit. They relied on phone calls to help keep his spirits up, even convincing Noe to try FaceTime for the first time.
By day five, FF Lopez was able walk on his own to the restroom. “It was a small victory. I felt like I’d just run five miles when it was only 15 feet to the bathroom,” he recounted. Against Bonnie’s wishes, Noe was discharged later that day, unofficially because the hospital needed space for incoming COVID patients. He was sent home with a portable oxygen machine, which he would use for the next three weeks.
Recovery was a grueling process, but Noe credits Bonnie with furthering his progress each day. “On top of checking my vitals and giving me my medications, she’d pump me full of vitamins and home remedies to help me get my strength back,” shared Noe.
By the last week of April, FF Lopez was strong enough for walks around a nearby park. About a month later, he was cleared to return to duty on May 5th. “I wasn’t 100% certain he was ready to go back,” expressed Bonnie. “But it turns out, that was exactly what he needed to take the last step towards a full recovery.”
As of June 17th, FF Lopez revealed that he guesstimates his physical condition is around 95% of where he was before getting sick. “Physically, I’m doing well. Aside from some minor skin discoloration, I just have that little lingering whistle-cough from the pneumonia,” he explained. “It’s the psychological effects that are harder-hitting now. As firefighters, we’re extremely diligent about our safety precautions, but I have to be even more cautious now. I can’t risk a bit smoke inhalation on a fire or coming down with a relapse of COVID.”
After 18 days with a fever, and nearly two months of recovery, life is as close to normal as its going to get for FF Lopez and his family. As a precaution, they still maintain distance from their daughter and other family members. Bonnie wonders aloud if Noe’s damaged lungs will fully recover, and how this illness will affect his long-term health. “He seems like himself again, but what does this mean for his future?”
Still, they are eager to move on from one of the scariest times of their lives, even if Noe still has months of routine medical check-ups ahead. Bonnie has since donated plasma to help other COVID patients. Noe is grateful his senses of taste and smell have returned, allowing him to fully enjoy Bonnie’s home cooking. The four family dogs are no longer skittish around him. Now that he’s off the oxygen machine, his pets have welcomed him back home.
FF Lopez is deeply appreciative for the overwhelming support he received from the entire LAFD family. When asked if there was anything he would like to share with those curious about his experience he said, “You don’t want this [COVID-19]. You really don’t. I’ve heard people say it’s like a bad version of the flu… it’s not. There is no comparison. I’m one of the lucky ones that made it. Hopefully people can learn from this and remember to take their safety and health seriously, especially if you have a family.”
Q&A with Battalion Chief Mike Castillo
June 12, 2020 - Los Angeles, CA
We sat down with Battalion Chief Mike Castillo, a 36-year veteran with the LAFD, to talk about his experience coordinating procurement and distribution of PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic for the country’s second largest fire department.
Q: How many roles are you currently serving in for the LAFD?
BC Castillo: It varies at this time. As a BC (“Battalion Chief”), I’m fortunate to be assigned to Battalion 1 in the downtown area, which is my primary duty. Battalion 1 is part of Operations Central Bureau with eight fire stations and approximately 95 personnel per shift. For the past three months I have been detailed to our Supply and Maintenance Division as a Liaison Officer, assisting with COVID pandemic supplies, and most recently I was detailed to the Boyd Street fire Serious Incident Review, the incident that resulted in severe injuries to twelve of our firefighters
Q: What is a Supply Unit Liaison and why is this designation a bit out of the ordinary?
BC Castillo: A Supply Unit Liaison (SPUL) is a role you’ll typically see activated and assigned during large wildfires, or other incidents that will carry-on for several days. During fire season, this role would help with coordinating meals, distributing equipment and materials - essentially making sure our firefighters have what they need to get their jobs done. The LAFD activated a SPUL for the COVID pandemic but also temporarily detailed a Battalion Chief to the Supply and Maintenance Division as a Liaison Officer to the SPUL, specifically for the pandemic emergency.
Supply Unit specifics vary from incident to incident. For example, at a brush fire, our crews in the field may need wildland hoses, nozzles, etc. The Supply Unit orders, stocks and distributes those items. Whatever the field needs to accomplish the mission, the Supply Unit will typically supply it to them. In this role, personnel are generally responsible for working with vendors, and partners like the LAFD Foundation, to get the resources we need on tight turnaround.
Tasking a Supply Unit Liaison outside of fire season is a bit unusual, but the need arose at the onset of the pandemic, so here we are.
Q: What do those pandemic-related needs look like and when did they surface?
BC Castillo: PPE was, and continues to be the biggest need. Sourcing cleaning supplies, sanitizer and disinfectant were also high priorities. As COVID protocols began ramping up, it became clear very quickly that the LAFD’s supply chain for replenishing PPE was maxing out. Usually, the Department has a pretty good sense of the supplies each fire station runs through on a monthly basis. In the early weeks of the pandemic, our personnel were burning through PPE at lightning speed, much like first responders in many other parts of the country.
Q: This sounds like a huge undertaking. What’s the first task you tackled?
BC Castillo: Without a doubt, assembling a team was the first priority. I requested several Captains and experienced firefighters to serve as Supply Unit Leaders and staff – the same personnel you would see activated for fire season, or deployed to assist other agencies with forest fires or other large incidents. These folks are the backbone of the operation.
They all know what they’re doing, and they do a remarkable job of making things happen. Additionally, a Ground Support Unit was activated under Logistics. Without the hardworking staff of the Ground Support Unit, none of the supplies would have been delivered throughout the City. A big THANK YOU goes to Brian Labrie, Milt Quintana and Dave Lemmond for their expertise and leadership.
Q: Walk us through how your team operates. What’s different from the normal supply chain process?
BC Castillo: Our goal is to ensure all applicable personnel have a steady supply of masks, gloves, face shields, gowns, sanitizer, etc. These supplies are critical to keeping patients and firefighters safe. We cannot allow supply levels to reach zero. So, we essentially set-up the LAFD equivalent of an Amazon Prime. We created a system where field units could place an internal order for PPE or supplies, and our team would coordinate next day delivery. It’s pretty remarkable to see the new system in action.
Q: What type of results are you seeing?
BC Castillo: We are serving all 106 fire stations, our specialty units, and eight of the public COVID testing sites. I’m pleased to say the operation is running smoothly. The supply chain is stable through the next few months, and our personnel don’t have to worry about running out of supplies… barring any major changes. We have been fortunate to avoid the PPE crisis that has befallen other agencies. The personnel assembled for this mission worked six, sometimes seven days week, 15 hours a day during the first month of the pandemic.
Q: How do you think the LAFD avoided completely depleting its PPE inventory?
BC Castillo: Thankfully, we were keeping a watchful eye on unfolding events. The Department had the foresight to place some sizable PPE orders just before things started turning ugly. Also, the LAFD is very fortunate to have some incredible partners, community groups, and of course the LAFD Foundation. Our supporters stepped forward and donated money, or donated supplies during those crucial weeks in March and April. This really helped bridge the gap while we established our new processes.
Q: Is the LAFD prepared for a surge or wave 2?
BC Castillo: I believe we are. We faced some “interesting” challenges in the early weeks. There was a bit of a learning curve because the effects of the pandemic were mostly new. None of us had ever faced anything comparable. But we leaned on our experience and our desire to find solutions, and we were able to stabilize our supply chain. We have a sufficient inventory of essential items, and at least for the foreseeable future, we’ve eliminated the threat of running out of supplies. It’s pretty cool to say we never ran out… It got close there for a minute, but we never ran out. I think that’s a major factor in how we were able to keep the number of our personnel that tested positive relatively low.
Battalion Chief Castillo insisted on recognizing the following personnel for their dedication to keeping our firefighters safe:
- Elizabeth Borunda, Supply and Maintenance
- Richard “Rick” Fernandez
- Captain Cesar Garcia
- Captain Abel Gomez
- Federico “Freddie” Gomez
- Adrian Guerra
- Captain Matt Laurin
- Captain Ruben Lopez
- Firefighter Mike Marquez
- Captain Matt Pedini
- Firefighter Dustin Sansone
- Captain Sean Saunders
Local Chef Coordinates Movement to Hand-Make Masks for LAFD
April 1, 2020 – Los Angeles, CA
Chef Jane Glenn heard through a friend that firefighters were headed for a shortage of face masks at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. As a breast cancer survivor, she had a box of N95 masks stashed away from her recovery regimen. Jane dug out the box, which turned out to have 50 or so unused masks and decided to drop them off at the LAFD training facility near downtown L.A. She figured the firefighters would accept her small donation and put them to good use.
PHOTO: Chef Jane Glenn (right) presents the first batch of face masks to Assistant Chief Wade White, LAFD Supply & Maintenance Division. Volunteer seamstresses across L.A. handcrafted more than 500 masks for patients being transported by LAFD ambulances.
Coincidentally, Assistant Chief Wade White happened to be onsite at the same time Jane stopped by to drop off the masks. The two struck up an impromptu conversation about the LAFD’s working conditions and elevated safety protocols. Jane’s jaw dropped when she heard the severity of the LAFD’s rapidly diminishing supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“How could this be? One just kind of assumes preparations are in place to safeguard against these situations,” expressed Jane. “My little box of masks would become a drop in the bucket against this immense need.”
Her mind churned as she drove home to Pasadena. She knew she needed to take action, and by the time she pulled into her driveway, she had a plan. Jane raced to her computer and began researching. She knew buying masks was not feasible, so she pivoted to the next option, looking at how masks were made and what materials would be needed.
Jane looked to her social networks like Nextdoor for help, guidance and inspiration. Almost immediately, she connected with Jen Orsini, a retired fashion designer, textile expert and former college instructor. Jane tapped Jen to lead the design and mask development. Now they just needed the materials.
Next, Jane contacted a Southland medical supply company and bought out their remaining inventory of non-woven medical-grade fabrics, a key component to surgical masks. Similar to paper in texture, these disposable fabrics are used to create barriers with breathability.
Simultaneously, Jen reached out to her good friend Robin Cox, owner of a local fabric shop. Robin was eager to help and supplied the materials for the inner layer of the masks that would act as the filter.
With input from Jen and Robin, Jane had the materials and template for the mask prototype ready to go less than 48 hours after visiting the LAFD training facility. Then came time for Jane to assemble her workforce. The first call went out to quilters, since experienced quilters were more likely to have the workspace and tools to help prepare the mask “toolkits”.
The quilters were provided with detailed instructions (from Jen) and the bulk materials to cut the individual mask components. Once all the pieces were cut, Jane coordinated distribution of “toolkits” to 23 volunteer seamstresses across L.A. Each toolkit contained the necessary materials to assemble 20-60 masks.
From Altadena to Culver City, La Crescenta to Silverlake, Jane would spend the next two weeks crisscrossing Los Angeles, dropping off materials and picking up finished masks. She even sustained a tire blowout on the rebound from a pick-up in Granada Hills.
For this unemployed chef and single mom, the effort, expense and sacrifice have all been worth it. “Our firefighters take so many risks to keep us safe. It’s only right that we try to find ways to help give back and show them our appreciation,” expressed Jane. “This has been such a remarkable effort by everyone involved. We’ve assembled more than 500 masks that we plan to deliver to the LAFD by the first week of April. Obviously, we know the firefighters won’t be able to wear these. But at least they can be provided to patients as an added safety precaution.”
NOTE: LAFD safety protocols dictate that any patient exhibiting potential signs/symptoms of COVID-19 be fitted with a surgical mask when being transported via ambulance. The masks donated by these exceptional volunteers have been cleared for this specific use, given volunteers adherence to the group’s cleaning, sterilization and sanitizing guidelines.
COLLEGE STUDENT DESIGNS COOL APPAREL, DONATES PROCEEDS TO LAFD
January 6, 2019 - Los Angeles, CA
College student and aspiring designer Samantha Ko creates unique goods that do good. More specifically, she designs cool apparel and accessories, sells them via her online Etsy shop (CHOREANSS Apparel), and donates the proceeds to worthwhile causes.
Samantha creates fire-inspired gear and donates 100% of the proceeds from this line to the LAFD Foundation as a way to thank the firefighters that helped protect her community during the last few wildfire seasons.
The impact and heartache of the 2017 Skirball Fire hit close to home for Samantha, prompting her to launch her first wave of tees and hoodies.
After November’s Getty Fire struck, she rolled out her second design featuring a Dalmatian with some serious head wear.
Samantha's creative spirit and generosity are powerfully inspiring. Even though a career in the fire service may not be on her horizon, Samantha has surely created a fun and impactful way to help her community.
Photo: Samantha Ko (center) wearing her original hoodie design, accompanied by her twin brothers.
Donors Help Power Air Operations
Funding from donors recently allowed the LAFD Foundation to support Air
Operations with three "Start Pacs." These portable devices provide electricity to the
unit's specialized helicopters for areas such as:
1 – Pre-flight Inspections
Every morning a pre-flight inspection is made on each helicopter. As certain items
on the checklist require electrical power, crews previously had to use the aircraft's
auxiliary power unit (APU). Using the APU could potentially deplete the aircraft's
batteries, which could delay a response to an emergency.
2 – Hoist Maintenance
The LAFD's helicopters are equipped with a powerful hoist for situations such as
rescuing an injured hiker from a mountain top or retrieving someone from a river.
Each time the hoist is used, it must be inspected by mechanics upon the aircraft's
return. This inspection would require using the aircraft's APU for power.
3 – Ground-based Training
Air Operation's flight crews spend hundreds of hours training at their base between
missions. Trainings can range from ‘dry running’ cockpit operations to practicing the
steps to bring a patient inside the aircraft during a hoist rescue. Both these exercises
would require using the aircraft's batteries.
SAVE THE DATE: VALOR 2019
Mark your calendar for Valor: Beyond the Call on November 6, 2019 at the Westin Bonaventure. This night features unforgettable storytelling and recognition of the heroic actions of LAFD firefighters who went above and beyond the call of duty over the past year.
MORE INFO TO COME
New Packs Support the LAFD's Backs
In December 2015 the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) granted the LAFD five specially designed wildland fire engines built to help provide mutual-aid resources against brush fires. For more than three years these engines have been maintained and staffed by a total of 25 LAFD firefighters.
While the Governor's office provided the large equipment, the firefighters that staff the Cal OES fire engines need specialized equipment to support their operations. Fighting brush fires demands long, strenuous hours of work in rugged terrain. This makes the need for new gear tailored to extended operations crucial.
In response to this need, the LAFD Foundation stepped in to provide each of these firefighters a wildland extension pack. This new equipment, which compliments the recently distributed hydration backpacks, offers a wide range of advantages from the previous equipment that these firefighters used.
Out with the Old (bottom left), in with the New (bottom left)
- 1960's-era technology
- Limited water storage (roughly 1.8 liters).
- Bulky fire shelter placement.
- Little to no back support.
- Limited tool storage/placement.
Hydration Backpack + Extension Pack
- Includes a 3.1 liter water bladder that can be filled with ice to keep cool
- Over-the-shoulder hose and mouthpiece allows hydration while working
- Wing pockets can hold an additional 64 ounces of water or fuel per-side
- Fire shelter placement below backpack is located at hand-level
- Dual, velcro sides provide immediate access to fire shelter
- Specially designed spine provides back support and distributes weight across hips
- Load-bearing shelf supports the placement of a hose line