Cold Tribute : For Firefighters Who Gain Some Renown, It’s Ice Cream All Around

Times Staff Writer

When fire network dispatcher Steve Rothert helped a woman deliver her baby via telephone earlier this week, he became an instant celebrity.

At his station, the publicity netted Rothert another role: he became the new ice cream man. In fire departments across the county, it’s a custom for firefighters or other department employees who get their names in the newspapers or whose faces flash on television screens to fork over the bucks and buy a round of ice cream.

“It’s been a tradition as long as I’ve been associated with the Fire Department,” said dispatcher Norm Baron, who is in his 19th year in the business.


No one seems to remember how or when it started, and different departments have their own variations of the theme. But ice cream seems to be at the center of the custom.

For Rothert, who coolly coached a Huntington Beach woman through the birth of her son Monday, the new celebrity status has translated to orders for rocky road, rum raisin, heavenly hash and other exotic flavors. Forget vanilla.

“He owes so much ice cream, you wouldn’t believe it,” said Baron, who works with Rothert in the fire communications network which handles the cities of Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and Westminster.

Actually, Rothert got so much national attention, including a spot on television’s Today Show, that one firefighter got a little demanding and sent him a note saying that only “Marie Callender will do . . . ice cream for regular TV. Pie for national TV.”

In Buena Park, firefighters have a different version of the tradition, dispatcher Ron Adkins said. Most “firsts"--such as new firefighters responding to their first fire--qualify as “ice cream time,” he said.

Excuses that some firefighters have drummed up to turn one of their colleagues into a temporary Good Humor man vary widely: promotions are worth a scoop or two, and so are on-the-job gaffes, whether as an apology or just another reason to sample some strawberry swirl.

And if there are enough hearty appetites around, buying ice cream can put a dent in a pocketbook--"a little one,” anyway, says Brea firefighter Chuck Shad.

The monetary impact of the ice cream runs makes some firefighters a little camera-shy. “A lot of those guys try to keep their backs (where the fire department’s name is clearly written) from the camera,” Baron said.

The light-hearted tradition helps unify a group that is often faced with the urgency of decisions and the heartbreak of tragedy, firefighters said.

“In this kind of a job, you have to be able to stay loose and not get too up-tight. If you do, you’ll be in the hospital for a while,” Adkins said.

And “razzing” firefighters to buy ice cream after their names or pictures appear in the papers and television is a way of further honoring their work, many firefighters agreed.

“I like to see the good things that they do out there . . . when they save people,” said one emergency call dispatcher.

Of course, the woman who handles 911 calls for the emergency network that covers Anaheim, Garden Grove, Orange and Stanton declined to give her name, lest she be stuck with the next round of ice cream.