FEBRUARY 2021 FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH
AFARA LALAIND, FIREFIGHTER | PARAMEDIC
COVID DIVISION/Fire Station 65
After nearly a year, the life-threatening effects of the pandemic continue to be disproportionately felt throughout L.A.’s underserved communities. Firefighter/Paramedic Afara Lalaind is at the forefront of combating this trend. Lalaind is technically assigned to Fire Station 65 in Watts, but for the past year, she has been detailed to the LAFD’s COVID Division.
From March of 2020 through December, she was an integral part of the LAFD’s mobile testing team, working in some of L.A.’s hardest-hit communities. During the holidays season, she switched over to a special assignment – helping to administer the vaccine to the city’s dependent and homebound population, comprised mainly of elderly and disabled persons without access to vaccine sites.
Similarly to the mobile testing program, Lalaind and her teammates identify communities with high infection rates, and work to establish a way to curb the spread. In some cases, that means establishing a “pop-up” site with outreach and transportation services provided by other community partners. In other cases, it means taking the operation directly to local Housing and Urban Development sites.
“We vaccinated 42 seniors on our first day of the pilot program,” explained Lalaind. “These are Phase 1 folks that otherwise would not have access to the vaccine. It may not seem like much, but every day, we hope to see our progress grow. The goal is to help vaccinate 73,000 individuals.”
Lalaind is a Bay Area native who grew up dedicating her time to community causes like volunteering at homeless shelters, food banks, and the local women’s shelter. After taking an introduction to fire service class in college, Afara was certain she had found her calling. She credits her college instructor, and her older sister, who at the time was a member of the San Jose Fire Department, with guiding her journey.
Joining the LAFD is a testament to Afara’s perseverance and relentless work ethic. After nearly three dozen applications to 15 different agencies, Lalaind landed her dream job. It took eight years for the single mother of three to make it. That was in 2016, and she claims she is just getting started.
“I never doubted myself. I knew this was what I wanted and it was only a matter of time and effort,” expressed Lalaind. “I committed to becoming a firefighter - for myself, and for my kids. There were definitely some challenging times, but I knew I needed to see this this through to send the right message and set an example for my children.”
According to Battalion Chief Kris Larson, COVID Testing Section Commander, Afara’s hard work continues to make a remarkable impact. “Firefighter/Paramedic Lalaind is a tremendous asset to this [COVID] Division, and to our entire Department,” shared Chief Larson. “Her sound judgement, professionalism, and unmistakable passion for helping others are why she is ideally suited to help guide the vaccination outreach process for our at-risk communities. We are fortunate to have her on the team, and she is most deserving of receiving Firefighter of the Month.”
Lalaind dedicates what little free time she has towards her children and family. She looks forward to rounding the curve on the pandemic so she can resume her carpentry and woodworking hobbies. Before COVID struck, Afara could most likely be found in her woodshop, or making renovations to her new home. “I had to shelve most of my projects because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to fight the pandemic, be a mom, and rebuild my fireplace mantle,” joked Lalaind.
JANUARY 2021 FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH
RANDALL YSLAS, CAPTAIN II
Fire Station 48
“It’s time. I’m ready to ride off into the sunset,” teased Captain II Randall Yslas. After 34 years of dedicated service with the LAFD, Captain Yslas is retiring. Yslas has spent the last six years as the Task Force Commander assigned to Fire Station 48 in San Pedro, just blocks away from the busiest seaport in the U.S.
In addition to the typical fires and medical emergencies seen all over the city, Fire Station 48 also responds to a myriad of maritime-related emergencies – like daring water and cliff rescues, tending to injured cruise ship passengers, and even wharf fires fed by volatile boat fuels.
Over the course of the past three decades, Yslas humbly joked that he’s seen just about every type of incident, no matter how severe, obscure, or infrequent. The harbor was the last area Yslas hoped to check off on his list. After half a dozen years at Station 48, he believes he’s left his mark and is ready to transition into life as a civilian.
“I became a firefighter shortly after graduating from high school,” shared Captain Yslas. “I knew I wanted a job where I would help others and be of service. After 34 years with the LAFD, I feel like I’ve followed through on my commitment. I’m glad as I was able to help save a few lives, and hopefully I was able to impart some of my experience on those around me.”
The Firefighter of the Month award is rarely bestowed upon retiring members. However, as word of Captain Yslas’ retirement spread, his fellow firefighters turned out in droves to voice their support for his nomination. “He is an exceptional leader and a true hero,” said Deputy Chief Ronnie Villanueva. “Captain Yslas has always led by example. We could rely on him to keep a calm, level head under pressure, even under the most challenging incident conditions. He has been a friend and mentor to countless members of this department. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award."
For many, Yslas’ retirement is bittersweet. “When he started talking, you stopped to listen,” remarked Captain I Cesar Garcia, one of Captain Yslas’ station mates at 48s. “He has such an incredible wealth of knowledge, and special gift for how to share his experience. We’re losing a great leader. Once he’s gone, that presence cannot be replaced.”
For others, like Apparatus Operator Travis Hill, Yslas’ departure resonates deeper. “I’m happy for him, but selfishly I’m bummed,” explained AO Hill. “His guidance and leadership are the reason I put in for a transfer to Station 48. He is like a father figure to so many of us, and he’ll definitely be missed.”
Although Captain Yslas’ final shift is around the corner, his legacy will carry on through those he has led and mentored. “Whatever station I’ve gone to, I always tried to give something back, leave it a little better than I found it. I encourage my teams to be confident, be competent, and do the right thing. Have the courage to do what’s right and you’ll leave a positive impact,” explained Yslas. Judging by the outpouring of feedback from his colleagues and superiors, Captain Randall Yslas truly served with courage, integrity and pride.
DECEMBER 2020 FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH
FIREFIGHTER III EDGAR GARCIA
Fire Station 27
Edgar Garcia was just 13 years old when he became a Fire Explorer. His older brother had been in the program for a few years, so he was curious to see what all the fuss was about. The Garcia family lived in East Hollywood, so once he enrolled, he was assigned to Fire Station 27, just off Cahuenga Blvd. in the heart of Hollywood.
“The ride-alongs really sealed the deal,” recalled Garcia. “There’s just no way to describe it. You have to experience it. Someone call tell you all about what it’s like to be a firefighter, but for me, I needed to see it. Once I got the opportunity to ride out with the crew at 27s, I was hooked. I knew what I was meant to be.”
Garcia is now in his fifth year with the Los Angeles Fire Department. Until May of 2020, he had worked at Fire Station 75 in Mission Hills. This summer, Garcia received the news that Station 27 would be his new assignment. “A position opened up when one of the members there was promoted. I figured I’d put in for it thinking there could be a chance I’d get to come back to where it all started. Luckily enough, it worked out,” shared Edgar.
“I’ve enjoyed every one of my assignments and I’m grateful for what each stop has taught me. But there’s no denying that there’s something rewarding, something special about getting to work in the neighborhood where I grew up,” expressed Garcia.
Since the start of the holiday season, Garcia has also taken on another familiar role, albeit in a more official capacity. His special duty assignment brought him back to Toy Central in Elysian Park – the LAFD’s processing hub for the Spark of Love toy drive program.
Garcia began volunteering with the toy drive at age 14. As a kid, he’d spend every day of his winter break sorting, packing and delivering toys with firefighters. Fast-forward 15 years, and he is now one of Spark of Love’s program leaders – responsible for the coordination and logistics of fulfilling thousands of community toy requests. “Helping with Spark of Love has been one of the greatest joys in my life. Seeing the way the kids’ faces light up when we deliver those toys, there’s just no better feeling,” shared Garcia.
“This toy drive has been going strong for close to 30 years, and we will keep this going as long as there is a need to help families in our communities,” shared Firefighter Michael Marquez, who oversees the LAFD’s Spark of Love operation. Thankfully, the toy drive’s future looks bright with Garcia primed to take the reins one day.
“Firefighter Garcia is a tremendous asset to the Spark of Love program and a big reason why we were able to have another successful season. Edgar has a big heart, an immeasurable work ethic, and a personal responsibility to see this toy drive succeed. He has grown into an incredible leader. Our department is proud of his efforts, and fortunate that he believes so strongly in this program.”
Technically, the Spark of Love will run through the first few weeks of January to try to accommodate late-arriving requests. With the holiday rush behind him, Garcia breathes a sigh of relief knowing that the toy drive was successful in spite of this year’s many challenges. “We were not able to accommodate the massive requests from years past, but thankfully, we were able to meet nearly every community ask, given the huge spike of new recipients. It was a good season. Now we get ready for next year.”
NOVEMBER 2020 FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH
CAPTAIN II JOHN RUEDY
US&R UNIT, DISASTER RESPONSE SECTION
If you have ever watched national news coverage of hurricane relief operations and caught a glimpse of LAFD firefighters in the gulf coast, chances are its Captain John Ruedy’s handiwork.
Captain Ruedy currently serves as the Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Unit Commander, and the liaison for the LAFD’s state and federal US&R task forces. More importantly, he is one of the LAFD’s resident subject matter experts on all search and rescue-related issues and operations.
In essence, Captain Ruedy helps manage some of the most advanced US&R personnel and resources in the country. When a neighboring fire agency requests assistance, or the State of California, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) require specialized disaster response resources, Captain Ruedy answers the call.
His quiet nature and soft-spoken demeanor are a warm contrast to the scope of his responsibilities. Calmly and methodically, Captain Ruedy scales the logistical, technical, apparatus, equipment and personnel resources to the needs of the incident. In many cases, this also involves coordinating the deployment of medical professionals, canine handlers, engineers, and other specialized personnel.
Most recently, Captain Ruedy helped coordinate California Regional Task Force 9’s deployment on the North Complex Fire (Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties) to perform the heart-breaking task of searching the vast burned areas for potentially missing persons whom may have been caught in the blaze.
Captain Ruedy spent nine years preparing for his current assignment. He previously served as a US&R task force captain for nine years, where he traveled, trained, and problem-solved on countless disaster deployments. He loves his current role and cannot imagine a more rewarding assignment.
“Working in the US&R arena is different than serving in a traditional firefighting role,” shared Captain Ruedy. “As a US&R member, you’re going to find yourself in some bizarre and challenging environments. It takes a certain type of person to commit to the extra training and continuous education. We’re always learning, always pushing ourselves to improve our knowledge and skillset. These assignments can be extremely demanding, but they can also be very rewarding.”
The Ruedy household, which includes his wife of 27 years and his adult daughter and son, love the outdoors. Off duty, you are likely to find them wakeboarding on Lake Powell or Lake Havasu. Captain Ruedy is an L.A. native. He became a firefighter in 1989. He has the honor of serving in the LAFD alongside his brothers Brandon (Captain II, Air Ops) and Brent (Inspector, Valley Industrial Commercial).
October 2020 Firefighter of the Month
Firefighter/Paramedic Rhonie Topinio
FIRE STATION 4
Rhonie Topinio is living his childhood dream as firefighter and paramedic with the LAFD. The Orange County native remembers the moment he knew he wanted to become a firefighter.
In second grade, members from a nearby fire station paid a visit to Rhonie’s school. He recalls being awed by their safety presentation, marveling at their turnout equipment, climbing on the fire truck, but most importantly, he was struck by the firefighters’ friendliness. “From that day forward, I knew I wanted to be a firefighter. Nothing was going to change my mind,” expressed Rhonie.
As a teen, Rhonie had the opportunity to occasionally ride-along with his uncle, who served at the original Fire Station 4 near downtown L.A. Seeing his uncle and fellow firefighters in action solidified his intent to join the LAFD.
Rhonie is now in his third year with the LAFD, and his second year assigned to Station 4 in the Arts District. “Working at Station 4 is wild,” shared Rhonie. “It’s such a unique experience because of our great crew, the area we serve, and the surprising sense of community. Between the jails and Union Station, we see a ton of medical calls, and there’s never a dull moment. The toughest part is just missing your family after working three, four, or five consecutive days.”
According to Captain Gayle Sonoda, Firefighter/Paramedic Topinio is exactly the type of member you want on your team. “He’s a hard worker, shows initiative, actively seeks opportunities to learn and improve, and he always seems to have a great attitude - even when he’s exhausted,” remarked Captain Sonoda.
Off-duty, the married father of two splits his free time between cooking (he loves to cook), and cultivating his daughter and son’s athletic careers. Mealtime at the Topinio household is proclaimed to be quite the experience. Rhonie, who is of Filipino and Mexican descent, is low-key famous for combining cultures and flavors in the kitchen.
“So far, so good. Being a firefighter is everything I hoped it’d be,” shared Rhonie. “Maybe one day, we’ll visit a school and have a similar effect on a future firefighter.”
Thanks to Marathon Petroleum, Rhonie and the crew at Station 4 are receiving a $500 station sponsorship. They plan to apply the sponsorship towards technology upgrades in their apparatus bay.
August 2020 Firefighter of the Month
Firefighter/EMT Brian Thies
FIRE STATION 1
Brian Thies is in his third year as a firefighter/EMT assigned to Fire Station 1 in Lincoln Heights.
After graduating from UC Irvine in 2012 with a degree in business economics, Thies briefly pursued a stint in sports marketing. While there were aspects of the job he enjoyed, Brian found the corporate grind unfulfilling, so he turned his focus elsewhere.
Brian’s cousin, a member of the Stockton Fire Department, saw his potential and counseled him towards a career in the fire service.
Firefighting roots run deep in the Thies family, so it was only a matter of time before Brian considered following suit. His father recently retired after a long and illustrious career with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. His brother, and brother-in-law are also firefighters.
Brian recalls the many station visits, ride-alongs, and how his family would often spend holidays and other special occasions at the fire station. In the back of his mind, he somehow knew he’d help carry the tradition forward.
Thies ditched the marketing gig to attend a private fire academy. After graduating, he worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for two private ambulance companies. Roughly two year later, Thies was hired by the Stockton Fire Department in California’s Central Valley.
In 2016, less than a year after becoming a firefighter in Stockton, Brian received the news that he earned his spot with the LAFD. He is currently assigned to Station 1 in Lincoln Heights, the oldest functional station in the City of Los Angeles.
“I love working at this station. We have an incredible array of diversity in the areas we serve, and the types of calls we respond to. We’re right next to the Five (Interstate 5 Highway) and 110, two of L.A.’s busiest freeways. We’re close to so much activity near downtown, the L.A. river, and Elysian Park. We get to see brush, structure, and vehicle fires, all sorts of rescue situations - it’s never boring,” shared Brian. “Plus, our community really seems to appreciate us.”
Ask the crew at Fire Station 1 what they think of Thies, and the responses you will hear are “consummate nice guy, great teammate and all-around good dude.” According to more than one anonymous source, Brian is also the quiet, but unsuspectingly funny guy, ready to chime in with a targeted quip.
Off duty, you are likely to find Brian reeling in bass off Lake Havasu. Thies is an avid fishing enthusiast that has competed in numerous tournaments. In fact, Brian has hooked his share of trophy bass, placing in the top five in multiple competitions. Given his quiet disposition, he isn’t one to boast about his accolades, but he is more than happy to share fishing advice.
Thanks to Marathon Petroleum, Brian and the crew at Station 1 are receiving a $500 station sponsorship.
July 2020 Firefighter of the Month
Firefighter/Paramedic Chelsee Brewster
FIRE STATION 62
According to Chelsee Brewster, training is the key to succeeding as a firefighter. How she trains is what sets her apart. “It’s more than repetition and muscle memory. Intensity, focus and discipline need to be part of your regimen if you want to make it in the LAFD,” she explained.
Brewster is a firefighter and paramedic assigned to Fire Station 62 in Venice – one of the most eclectic and diverse enclaves in L.A. She earned her current assignment after graduating from the paramedic program at UCLA earlier this summer.
Brewster is a rising star amongst her peers. October will mark her four-year anniversary with the LAFD. She attributes much of her recent success to her career as a Division I collegiate athlete. As captain of the women’s rowing team at San Diego State University, she earned All-American honors while on a full scholarship.
She first considered a career in fire service during her early college years. Her cousin, a member the Los Angeles County Fire Department, helped to guide her towards becoming a firefighter and coached her through the necessary certification processes.
In fact, Chelsee credits her family, especially the women, for influencing and inspiring her to pursue her firefighting dreams. “I come from a line of leaders and difference-makers. My grandmother was a life-long law enforcement officer, and my mom is a public defender. It was not a big shock to them when I announced that I wanted to join the LAFD,” said Chelsee.
Brewster views her decision to become a firefighter as the evolution of her years as multi-sport athlete. “In many ways, I feel like being an athlete really helped prepared me for my career as a firefighter. Not just the physical aspects, but the dedication and mental conditioning aspects. The value of a healthy diet, the grind of waking up early, knowing the difference between being hurt and being injured,” explained Brewster. “Especially the endurance sports, they teach you the importance of mental toughness – how to put your head down and push forward in the face of adversity.”
“You need a little adversity. You need those challenges. You need to have gone through something hard, some type of obstacles in life to build your self-confidence - because confidence is key to being a part of the LAFD. You need to have confidence in your skills and abilities, that you’ve got what it takes to act in those life and death situations when others are counting on you,” added Brewster.
Even though her rowing days are over, Chelsee is still very much an athlete. She enjoys snowboarding, rock climbing, and surfing (which she used to do competitively). She loves exploring nature with her fiancé, whom she is set to marry this fall in a picturesque mountain wedding. Chelsee was honored to be named July’s Firefighter of the Month, and she is excited to apply this month’s sponsorship from Marathon towards new fitness equipment for the members at Fire Station 62.
April/May 2020 Firefighter of the Month
Inspector Jacob Raabe
COMMUNITY RISK REDUCTION UNIT
Fast, accurate, and reliable communication is key to helping our firefighters and our communities cope with the pandemic fallout. Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas and the department as a whole, pride themselves on keeping our communities abreast of changes and challenges during these uncertain times.
The LAFD is now producing multiple informational videos on a monthly basis. The frequency and quality would lead one to believe that the LAFD has an experienced production team churning out content 24 hours per day.
The reality is, these videos are produced in-house by a small, but mighty cadre of firefighters and personnel in the Community Liaison Office. At the center of this operation is Inspector Jacob Raabe.
Officially, Raabe is an Inspector with the LAFD’s Community Risk Reduction (CRR) Unit. In this capacity, he is responsible for helping CRR identify and prioritize risks, threats and hazards followed by the implementation and evaluation of strategies to lessen their impact. CRR’s collective goal is to enhance community resiliency and improve preparedness with programs like Stop the Bleed, Hands-Only CPR, Home Fire Safety, and Fall Prevention for seniors.
These days, you’re more likely to find Raabe filming in the field, or catch him en-route to his next production project. In addition to his PPE, his back seat and trunk are filled with camera gear, lighting and audio equipment, and a live stream kit for field communications.
Raabe personifies the adapt-and-overcome mindset. He credits his inquisitiveness and persistence for problem solving for helping him build his production skillset. In just a few short years, he taught himself how to film, edit, create graphics, field produce, broadcast, and live stream.
“If I see a gap, or opportunity to improve something for our department, my curiosity peaks and I’ll go down the rabbit hole looking for a solution,” shared Raabe.
When he joined the LAFD in 2008, he could not have foreseen himself in his current role. Now, Raabe’s often tapped by LAFD leadership for everything from internal training videos and incident field communications, to live public information updates via social media.
Raabe laments that the challenges surrounding COVID response and safety measures are taxing, and he looks forward to when he can hopefully resume working on more traditional production tasks such as recruit graduations, promotion ceremonies, incident response recaps, and community events.
“I’ve enjoyed learning about new equipment how to integrate emerging technology into our information sharing capabilities,” expressed Raabe. “These skills are coming in particularly handy now that we have to produce COVID-related videos with frequency and short-turnaround. The situation is changing so rapidly, so we’re working to stay hyper-vigilant about accurate information.”
Inspector Raabe resides in Orange County with his wife and two sons. He carries on his family legacy of rewarding careers in fire service. Raabe’s father served 35 years with the Oakland Fire Department. His brother has also served with Oakland FD for 15 years. Prior to serving with the LAFD, Raabe served with the Baltimore City Fire Department, and Mountain View Fire Department in Silicon Valley.
Courtesy of Marathon, Raabe and his CRR teammates will receive a $500 sponsorship towards the tools, tech, or equipment of their choosing.
March 2020 Firefighter of the Month
Sir Robert Habersham IV, Inspector I/Paramedic
For the past two and half years, a lone LAFD inspector has overseen Maintenance and Code Enforcement at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Coincidentally, his name is as impressive as his scope of responsibility – Sir Robert Habersham IV.
Habersham is an L.A. native, a father, and an inspector for the LAFD’s Fire Prevention & Public Safety Bureau, stationed at the West Industrial Unit/LAX. In total, he’s spent close to 11 years working at LAX.
With over a decade of service at the airport, he’s seen quite an array of incidents and interesting emergency situations. Still, no amount of experience or training could prepare him for the coronavirus fallout. “I’ve never seen anything remotely close to this,” laments Habersham, as he explained how activity at the airport is down nearly 90% due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like all inspectors, his primary objectives are the elimination of fire and life safety hazards, the maintenance of fire protection equipment and systems, the regulation of hazardous materials and hazardous substances, and enforcement of building regulations regarding fire, panic, and explosion safety.
Habersham normally has his hands full inspecting terminals, office buildings, maintenance hangers, storage facilities, and construction projects. And of course, each inspection is as unique as the diverse stream of travelers flowing in and out of LAX each day.
LAX is one of world’s busiest transit hubs, accommodating nearly 100 million air travelers per year. The airport’s massive 3,500-acre foot print houses nine terminals with more than 130 gates, and more than two million square feet of hangers and cargo facilities.
“Firefighters are universally beloved… with the minor exception of those of us in code enforcement,” joked Habersham. “Not everyone is thrilled about a visit from an Inspector. I don’t mind though. We have an obligation to our department, and a commitment to everyone passing through this airport to help keep them as safe as possible.”
Working with airport leadership, multiple federal agency partners, and countless airlines means Habersham must be equal parts subject matter expert and diplomat. “LAX is an anomaly. It’s like a small city with its own unique infrastructure and ecosystem,” explained Habersham. “With a worksite this complex, I’m used to conducting around 300 inspections per year. Thankfully, most go pretty smoothly.”
“On any given day, I could inspect a 100 square foot maintenance project, or a one million square foot, multi-billion-dollar renovation,” expressed Habersham. “The size and scope may change, but the priorities are always the same – making sure the job is completed to code to protect the safety of personnel and travelers.”
Now, with the COVID-19 outbreak, nearly all inspections have ground to a halt. “These are challenging times and it’s tough to see the way this affects the airport community, because LAX truly is its own community,” expressed Habersham. Still, he is optimistic that positive growth can come from this downturn. For example, he’s particularly excited that his unit is part of a new project addressing strategic placement of breakaway terminal stanchions for emergency situations.
Sir Robert Habersham IV is honored to have been selected as Firefighter of the Month, and he is eager to consult with his teammates as to how to allocate the $500 sponsorship from Marathon.
January 2020 FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH: Apparatus Operator Jose Rodriguez
STATION 12 - HIGHLAND PARK
Apparatus Operator (“AO”) Jose Rodriguez is an 11-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Recently promoted to AO, Rodriguez is still acclimating to his new role and the weight of his increased responsibilities.
What is an Apparatus Operator? AO’s drive the specialized heavy fire apparatus such as aerial ladder trucks, aircraft crash rapid intervention vehicles, hazardous materials squad vehicles, and heavy utility vehicles. AO’s are one of the LAFD’s frontline leadership roles. They often work under conditions involving serious risks to personal safety, where situational awareness, job knowledge, and physical fitness are essential to minimizing danger.
Behind the scenes, AO’s also play an integral role in overseeing the use and maintenance of countless tools and life-saving equipment. From chainsaws and generators to the "Jaws-of-Life", AO’s have their hands full keeping their crews safe and ready to respond.
With such an important workload, it’s amazing Rodriguez finds time for his LAFD passion project – serving as a Cadet Post Advisor. In this completely voluntary role, Rodriguez acts as a mentor, counselor and role model to young men and women interested in pursuing a career in the fire service.
In addition to their daily work responsibilities, Advisors like Rodriguez sacrifice time in their off hours to share their experience and insight with the next generation of firefighters.
Rodriguez imparts his wisdom by using real life experiences as teachable moments, even if those lessons come at his own expense. He shares first-hand accounts of harrowing situations to underscore the importance of attention to detail, and most importantly, teamwork.
When asked about his proudest achievements, Rodriguez humbly states that seeing the young men he mentored as cadets move into fulfilling careers as first responders. In fact, more than 15 cadets he’s mentored since 2010/2011, have become sworn members of the LAFD.
“It’s an incredible feeling when you’re able to meet these kids with just a spark of interest in becoming a firefighter,” shared Rodriguez. “Little by little, you get to know them, help them grow their skills, confidence, and passion. Then the next thing you know, years have flown by, and you bump into these kids - and by now they’re young adults - and they’re working alongside you helping to save lives. There’s just no better feeling.”
AO Rodriguez grew up in, and continues to reside in, the San Fernando Valley. When he isn’t spending time with his family, he’s with his Station 12 crew mates serving the eclectic neighborhoods of Highland Park, in North East Los Angeles.
The doors at 12’s are always open. If you’re in the area, AO Rodriguez invites you to stop by to say hello.
December 2019 Firefighter of the Month: FF/PM Edward Hechanova
The holiday season is Firefighter/Paramedic Edward Hechanova’s favorite time of the year. He’s partly joking, partly serious when he divulges that he loves Black Friday because it’s the day the he gets to break out the lights and decorations.
Hechanova laments that this is also one of the hardest times of the year to be a firefighter due to the emotional wear-and-tear of responding to holiday-related tragedies. Traditionally, fire departments all across the country see home fires, traffic incidents, and other medical emergencies surge throughout the holiday season.
“I love every part of being a firefighter and paramedic,” shared Hechanova. “Every part except breaking bad news to families during the holidays. The flip side is, you also get to see some of these tragedies bring out the best in people, and it can bring entire communities together. That’s the stuff that’ll melt any firefighter’s heart,” he said.
One incident in particular stands out for Hechanova. It was mid-December, approximately five years ago. He and his team responded to an emergency call near Occidental College. A young man had fallen out of a second-story window. The victim was badly injured, unresponsive and had no pulse when Hechanova arrived. They immediately began CPR and transported him to a nearby hospital. After completing the hospital handoff, Hechanova and his colleagues never heard what happened to the victim.
Several years passed, then seemingly out of the blue, Hechanova received a Christmas card in the mail from a name he did not recognize. In the card was a note from the mother of the young man who had fallen from the window. The mother graciously praised Hechanova and credited him with saving her son’s life. The note explained that the young man was able to make a full recovery, had returned to school, and graduated with his classmates… all because of Hechanova and his colleagues.
Looking back on the outcome, Hechanova cannot help but draw similarities to his own experience. He wasn’t much younger than the victim when a harrowing personal tragedy sparked his interest in becoming a firefighter.
When he was a teen, Hechanova and his family experienced a terrible home fire. He recalls being awestruck by the firefighters that rescued his family, and he knew right then and there what he would grow up to become.
“Hech,” as he’s referred to by his colleagues, has been an LAFD firefighter and paramedic for 25 years. He is currently assigned to Fire Station 55 in Highland Park, where he serves the neighboring communities of Eagle Rock, Glassell Park, and Mt. Washington. On top of his assigned duties, he also assists local residents with brush clearance projects. As a result, Hechanova has developed strong ties to this local community he’s called his second home for the past 11 years.
“I’ve known Edward for 23 years. He is a person of the highest integrity, and the paramedic I’d want my family to be treated by if they were ever in need,” expressed Battalion Chief David Spence. "FF/PM Hechanova is one of those guys that makes us proud, and he delivers outstanding service, above and beyond all standards.”
FF/PM Hechanova humbly accepted this recognition and insisted on sharing the honor with the entire crew at 55’s. He and his colleagues are excited to make good use of their $500 sponsorship from Marathon Petroleum Corporation.
NOVEMBER FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH – FIREFIGHTER III SEAN BAKER
Firefighter III (FF) Sean Baker is the LAFD’s rising star in the boxing ring. Part of the small, but mighty LAFD Boxing Club, Baker is one of seven active fighters representing the department on the public safety boxing circuit.
Baker and his teammates compete against fighters from across the country, and around the globe. While the league is recreational in nature, the competition level can be insanely tough.
In his last bout, Baker bested his opponent from the West Midlands Police of Birmingham, England. Baker had trained for nearly three months and dropped more than 30 pounds to reach his desired weight class.
If you ask Baker, the sacrifice was well worth it. The LAFD team went on to win the international tournament, winning 10 out of the 12 matches.
Boxers compete for much more than belts and bragging rights. Proceeds from each fight are typically donated or used to raise awareness for specific charities.
“I love that we when we step in the ring, we’re also doing something positive for a great cause,” shared Baker. “I’ll be dedicating my next fight to my academy classmate and fellow firefighter, Eric Stevens, who was recently diagnosed with ALS,” he added.
Baker has been an avid martial arts enthusiast and student since childhood. At age seven, he was introduced to the Korean art of tang soo do. Baker is now a seasoned fighter, and is proficient in several other forms including karate, jiu jitsu, and muy thai.
Surprisingly, he did not try his hand at boxing until 2018, nearly three years into his LAFD career. He took to it immediately, noting that “it felt like the natural progression of my training and fighting interests.”
Baker begins training for his competitions three months in advance. The training rigors produce an additional benefit by ensuring that Baker is in peak physical condition for his firefighting duties.
“I love every minute of it. Pushing myself to the limit and hitting that ‘runner’s high’ after every session. It’s just incredible,” shared Baker. “Plus, boxing has opened so many other doors and led me to build new friendships with boxers from different agencies and other countries.”
Baker is off to an impressive 3-0 start, putting the rest of the Cruiserweight class (junior heavyweight) on notice. His next fight is tentatively scheduled for April 2020.
Until then, expect to find Baker with the rest of his Fire Station 10 crew serving the downtown L.A. area, and training to add another victory to his name.
August/September Firefighter of the Month - Firefighter/Paramedic David Danielson
Firefighter/Paramedic David Danielson serves as the eye in the sky for the LAFD, but he is not your conventional fire department pilot.
After 26 years as a naval aviator, including three tours in Iraq, Sr. Chief Petty Officer Danielson retired from his role as a medic and helicopter crew chief to join the LAFD. Now he’s the Co-lead Pilot for the Unmanned Aerial Systems Program (UAS), and one of six pilots pioneering the department’s testing and deployment of UAS technology.
UAS are unmanned, remote piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones. Once seen as disruptive technology, UAS have evolved into force-multiplying tools that fortify safe deployment of resources.
Although still in its infancy, the UAS Program has quickly proven to be an invaluable resource for the LAFD. To date, the program has logged nearly 200 incident-related missions. Back in 2017 when the program launched, Danielson recalls working to help narrow the gap between helicopters and firefighters on the ground.
“In three short years, we’ve accomplished far more than originally intended. What we’ve actually done is add a whole other perspective that allows incident commanders to handle life-saving situations faster and more effectively than ever before,” expressed Danielson.
UAS are deployed for use across a variety of incidents, including hot-spot identification, aerial mapping to help wildfire containment, swift water rescues, hazmat operations, and search and rescue missions. According to Battalion Chief Richard Fields who oversees the UAS Program, “If picture is worth a thousand words, imagine the value of the real-time video and thermal imaging data this technology adds when it comes to protecting homes and saving lives.”
Members of the UAS Program train rigorously to achieve their FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot’s License and log a minimum of 20 flights hours before receiving their initial certification. Today, the UAS Program is bolstered by Co-Lead FF Derrick Ward, Engineer Robert Smith, Inspector Art Rodriguez, Inspector Steven Hamilton, and Inspector Kurt Corral.
Danielson and his fellow pilots drill constantly, sharpening their skills to drive the program forward. The team’s curiosity and innovative spirit lead to expanded deployment capabilities and implementation of lifesaving tech.
Previews of the new UAS features were on display at a recent Public Safety exhibition where Danielson remote piloted a state-of-the-art UAS valued at more than $50,000. He masterfully demonstrated how UAS pilots might assist with a Swift Water Rescue by air-dropping flotation devices to those in danger.
“It’s equal parts exciting and challenging,” remarks Danielson when asked about the fun-factor of piloting the aircraft. “It takes a tremendous amount of skill, patience, and discipline, but there’s also definitely a sense of enjoyment, especially when our involvement adds value to real-time decision making.
Danielson humbly accepted the honor of Firefighter of the Month on behalf of the entire UAS Program team. He and the crew are excited to apply the $500 sponsorship towards new UAS equipment.
July 2019 Firefighter of the Month - Inspector/Paramedic Ruthie Bernal
LAFD firefighters and paramedics are known for responding to emergencies after they have begun. Inspector/Paramedic Ruthie Bernal’s job is to prevent some of those emergencies from ever happening.
“The next brush fire might be inevitable, but it does not have to be a catastrophe for a community,” said Bernal. “My job is to work with the public to keep that from happening the best we can.”
Bernal serves as an Inspector in the LAFD’s Brush Clearance Unit (BCU). She oversees parcels of land in the communities of Sylmar, Sunland and Tujunga that are part of the 133 square-miles of Los Angeles that have fire high fire hazard zones. Her duties include inspecting properties, issuing notices and educating the community about simple ways brush clearance can save lives. To manage the 10,000 parcels assigned to her, Bernal uses technology that she helped design.
After serving in the BCU for three years, Bernal heard that the digital program for tracking inspections was severely outdated. Having an extensive amount of administrative knowledge of the unit, she was selected to represent the BCU during the development of the new program: Vegetation Management System (VMS) 2. This inevitably laid the foundation for the LAFD’s current software program, VMS 3, which utilizes GPS data and allows Inspectors to photograph, document and manage any potential property notices.
“I found being a part of the development of VMS 2 was a lot of fun,” Bernal said. “It was an honor to be chosen as the lead from for my unit to help create such an important program.”
Bernal has been with the LAFD for 28 years with time as a Paramedic before joining the BCU in 2001. Besides her roles in the creation of VMS 2 and VMS 3, she also streamlined the informational card that is mailed to residents living in extreme fire hazard areas. These exceptional contributions earned her the Michael P. Reedy Award, one of three Annual Fire Marshal’s Awards.
Outside her LAFD work, Bernal enjoys traveling, anything outdoors and spending time with her husband and two boys.
JUNE 2019 FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH: FIREFIGHTER / PARAMEDIC OMAR FUENTES
The success of the LAFD’s cadet youth program is best told through stories such as Firefighter / Paramedic Omar Fuentes. His passion to join the fire service sparked after a visit to Fire Station 34 in Crenshaw where he became a cadet. Years later, Fuentes can still be found at Fire Station 34, where he now serves his community as an LAFD firefighter.
“This is the station where I discovered that I wanted to be a firefighter,” Fuentes said. “Having the chance to work here now, wearing a badge, it makes me smile all the time.”
Following his time as a cadet, which introduces teens to a career in the fire service, Fuentes served as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for five years. He then paid his way through school to become a Paramedic. After serving four years as a Paramedic for a private ambulance company, he joined LAFD in 2016. Fuentes knew that with 85% of the LAFD’s responses being emergency medical service-related, his training would be put to the test every day.
The difference between an EMT and a Paramedic is the level of care each provides. EMT’s can provide patients oxygen, administer antibiotics and assist with treatments for asthma attacks or allergic reactions. Paramedics are qualified to provide these same treatments and more including administering medications via needles, intravenous lines, providing advanced airway support and can resuscitate a patient having significant problems like a heart attack.
“It could feel like the worst day of someone’s life and I get to go and comfort them,” Fuentes said. “Being a paramedic is a self-rewarding job, I love it.”
Fuentes doesn’t limit his passion of helping only patients; he also provides mentorship to his fellow LAFD members any time he can. Even during the busiest of days at the station Fuentes always makes time to sit down with new members and explain the varies procedures.
When not working at the fire station, Fuentes enjoys spending time with his daughter and girlfriend, along with working on projects around his house.
MAY 2019 FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH: FIREFIGHTER / PARAMEDIC CYNTHIA SATO
When Firefighter Cynthia Sato finishes her work as a 911 call dispatcher for the day she steps into her other role with the LAFD; being a Search and Rescue K-9 handler.
“Having a K-9 is kind of like having a kid and a roommate at the same time,” Sato said. “She’s an employee of the department just like me, but also my best friend.”
Sato’s interest in the LAFD began when she was a 17-year-old explorer (now called cadets). After pretending to be a victim during a K-9 search and rescue simulation as part of her cadet post, her desire to become a handler immediately sparked. Sato joined the LAFD in 2006 and worked at numerous fire stations before becoming a certified paramedic. Later, she pursued her ultimate desire and was paired with “Roxie,” her current K-9 partner, by the Search Dog Foundation.
Sato and Roxie have been deployed three times, with the most recent being to the Montecito mudslides in early 2018. During their six-day deployment, Roxie searched through the carnage looking for anyone who could be trapped in the mud, damaged structures and other debris.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see anything like that,” Sato said. “Deployments like that are what we train for. Seeing Roxie put that training into action was rewarding.”
Her desire to broaden her skills into areas such as being a K-9 handler also led Sato to her current position as a 911 call dispatcher. She handles emergency calls that range from a simple headache to a patient not breathing. As both a firefighter and paramedic, Sato uses her experience to quickly diagnose a situation and deploy the best resources to a caller’s aid.
Sato is excited to continue her partnership with Roxie. She is also in the process of joining the LAFD’s Arson/Counter Terrorism Section as an Arson Investigator.
APRIL 2019 FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH: FIREFIGHTER / PARAMEDIC DEXTER MCDANIEL
For almost 30 years Firefighter/Paramedic Dexter McDaniel has done more than help people on the job as a firefighter. He also donates his personal time to teach people how to prepare for an interview with the LAFD.
“We often talk about ourselves in a way that fits into a standard model,” McDaniel said. “The first thing I tell anyone is that there is no one better to tell your story than you.”
The LAFD employs a comprehensive oral interview during its hiring process. McDaniel knew candidates often fall back on habits like speaking chronologically and answering questions with limited information. To combat this he created a way to help people discover how to use their personal strengths, traits and experiences by outlining them similar to the floor plan of a house.
“You can walk into your house from any direction and still know where each room is,” McDaniel said. “The same applies here. We fill your house with everything that makes you stand out so that no matter what question is asked, you can choose any room to walk into and find the answer you need.”
His method quickly became popular. McDaniel’s phone began receiving calls from people across California, New Mexico, Texas, Georgia and even New York. No matter the distance, McDaniel always asks for the same three things from each person he helps. A classmate t-shirt, a promise that they will work to help others and that they never forget that someone spent time to help them.
McDaniel estimates that he’s spent more than 2,000 hours helping over 500 individuals since he joined the LAFD. If someone is unable to meet at his fire station or talk over the phone, he opens the door to his own home for meetings.
When not working at Fire Station 79 or helping someone prepare for an interview, McDaniel enjoys traveling, camping and glamping with his wife, Judy.
MARCH 2019 FIREFIGHTER OF THE MONTH: CAPTAIN AMY BASTMAN
Imagine being the voice of the largest fire department on the west coast each time you come to work. For two years Amy Bastman served in this capacity in her role as a Public Service Officer (PSO).
“I learned more about this department than I ever would have because of this position,” Bastman said. “Having the chance to share all the different things we do each day reminds me that I get to work for the best, the LAFD.”
Bastman is one of three PSO’s based at the department’s 911-call dispatch center. Some of her duties include answering public phone calls, serving as a spokesperson during incidents, crafting safety messages and managing the LAFD’s ever growing social media presence.
“The PSO position is critical to telling the LAFD’s story on all platforms,” Bastman said. “I am able to see people’s reactions to our work from across the globe in real time.”
Bastman’s time as a PSO occurred during one of the most challenging fire seasons in recent history. In December of 2017 she reported on the LAFD’s efforts in simultaneously battling the Creek and Skirball wildfires. She gave dozens of live interviews and provided information on social media. Bastman also assisted in the creation and distribution of incident maps for both fires viewed approximately 4 million times. She would later be awarded a Notice of Commendation by the LAFD for her exceptional efforts during this time.
Besides her public relations skills, Bastman is a certified paramedic, urban search and rescue technician and hazardous materials specialist. In her 11-year career with the LAFD, she has served out of fire stations across the city and been part of responses for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Outside her LAFD work, Bastman is a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation mentor who provides guidance for parents whose child has recently been diagnosed with the disease. She enjoys playing on the LAFD’s ice hockey team, outdoor activities and spending time with her wife and three children.
The LAFD Foundation congratulates Captain Bastman on her promotion to the rank of Captain I and wishes her well at her new assignment at Fire Station 52.
February 2019 FFOTM – Pilot David Nordquist
Pilot David Nordquist has always loved aviation. He was 5-years-old when he went on his first flight at the Van Nuys Airport. Little did Nordquist know that years later he would be saving lives by flying LAFD helicopters out of the same airport.
“I was flying airplanes before and after joining the department in my spare time, but never thought I would connect the two,” Nordquist said. “When I was approached about joining Air Operations, I learned this is the ultimate multi-tasking job because you’re a firefighter and pilot at the same time.”
Nordquist had already served as a firefighter and engineer for a combined 23 years when he joined the Air Operations unit in 2004. As a trainee, he worked as a crew chief, hoist operator, safety member and rescuer before becoming a pilot.
The Air Operations unit responds to situations like brush fires, hoist rescues and can be used as an air ambulance. Other scenarios Nordquist has personally flown include the transportation of a SWAT team to Big Bear, airlifting someone off Catalina Island and rescuing large animals. Of all these experiences, a rescue made during last year’s Woolsey Fire will always stand out in his mind.
“We had just made a water drop when the call came in that some folks on Castro Peak were trapped,” Nordquist said. “We were getting low on fuel but knew we were the only way those people we’re getting out of there.”
After Nordquist skillfully landed the helicopter on the rugged hilltop, fellow Pilot Joel Smith jumped out and led the three individuals and their two dogs to the aircraft. As Nordquist lifted the helicopter back into the air with everyone safely aboard, he was able to see that the flames had only been a single hilltop away. For their heroic actions, both Nordquist and Smith received a Certificate of Recognition in January 2019 from the LA City Council.
Nordquist has been a member of the LAFD for a total of 38 years and will be retiring this spring with more than 3,200 flight hours. He enjoys hiking, traveling, building model airplanes and spending time with his wife and children.
January 2019 Firefighter of the Month: Captain I Thomas Henzgen
Have you ever heard of the fire department term, “first in?” This phrase refers to a geographical area that a specific fire station will respond to incidents first because they are the closest resource. For Captain I Thomas Henzgen and the LAFD’s Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) team, the entire City of Los Angeles is their “first in.”
“We are dispatched to every technical rescue, physical rescue and large structure fire no matter where it’s located,” Henzgen said. “At a moment’s notice we’re ready to respond and solve a difficult puzzle to help rescue someone…it’s an exciting challenge.”
Henzgen serves as one of the captains on US&R 88, a specially designed apparatus tailored to the US&R team’s needs based out of Fire Station 88. He oversees US&R responses to situations such as: confined space, cliff, tower crane, storm drain, river, collapsed structure, mudslide, collapsed trench, flooding and many other technical rescue incidents.
“The things we respond to require a lot of thought about how best to approach them,” Henzgen said. “A collapsed structure, for example, might need shoring to support it before, during and after the actual rescue. Every situation is unique.”
Henzgen’s technical rescue knowledge stems from more than 20 years of professional experience including his tenure with the LAFD as well as his time as a structural engineer and general contractor. His public service interest began with a ski patrol and includes time with mountain rescue and law enforcement agencies. Henzgen’s path to join the LAFD took more than nine years and became a reality in September of 1998.
Since that first day he put on an LAFD badge Henzgen has explored other areas in the department. He is currently the coordinator of the LAFD’s Swift Water Rescue team and is a State Fire Training Certified Instructor in various US&R disciplines. He has also been deployed to aid the recovery efforts across the nation following six different hurricanes.
“No matter where I go, the best reward is just offering assistance in a time of need,” Henzgen said. “Having that opportunity to go help, I don’t need anything more than that.”