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The Bells Toll Often : Crews Constantly in Motion at Busiest Firehouse in Nation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fire Station 11 was no place to relax the other night.

Not because the 12 matching gray recliners were missing from the station’s television room, either.

Because the station at 1819 West 7th St. west of downtown Los Angeles is the busiest fire station in the United States.

That designation has come from a professional trade publication, Firehouse magazine, which annually compiles fire department statistics from across the country.

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Figures show that the station’s crew rushed to 20,225 fires and rescues in 1990--more than the busiest firefighters in New York, Chicago or anywhere else.

The other night, chairs from the TV room and other furnishings had been stacked in the garage behind the hook-and-ladder truck to make way for painters coming the next morning to spruce up the 33-year-old fire station.

But the alarm bell still worked. And it was getting a workout.

Every few minutes it rang. Overhead lights automatically flipped on and a voice blared from ceiling loudspeakers to send firefighters and paramedics scurrying.

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There was a difficulty-breathing call here. An unconscious diabetic there. A car fire on Wilshire Boulevard. A stabbing. A trash fire. A false alarm at a Hoover Street convalescent hospital.

It’s that way most days for the 36 firefighters and rescue workers who are divided into three 24-hour shifts at the station. They are the marathon crew of the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

“There are nights we are so busy that I don’t even go up and make up my bed. Sometimes I just sit downstairs and wait,” said Carlos Cavillo, 25, who steers the back of the station’s 100-foot aerial ladder truck.

Station 11 crew members acknowledge that they are not likely to repeat their No. 1 ranking this year, however. That’s because 1990’s statistics included the 6,468 responses handled by a second rescue ambulance that operated from the station and roamed to calls throughout the downtown area. This year, its work was divided among other rescue squads.

According to Firehouse, the nation’s second-busiest station, in Washington, D.C., handled 20,088 calls. The No. 3 station, in Columbus, Ohio, tallied 17,617 runs.

By contrast, the “slowest” neighborhood fire station in Los Angeles--in Pacific Palisades--answered 487 emergency calls last year.

“My wife keeps reminding me that there are people sleeping nights and getting paid for it at other stations,” said Station 11 firefighter Bill Aaron, 28.

Said hook-and-ladder driver Kevin Egizi, 29: “Sometimes I ask myself why that alarm keeps going off. Sometimes it’s disheartening to go home like a zombie, kiss the wife and kids and sleep. But I like the action.”

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So do a lot of others. There is a line of firefighters waiting to transfer to Station 11, according to department spokesman Capt. Steve Ruda.

“I tried four years to get here from the San Fernando Valley,” acknowledged firefighter Rick Erquiaga, 36. “If you want activity, this is the place.”

Although Station 11’s primary response area is the smallest in the city--1 1/2 square miles--its main fire engine chalked up 9,350 miles on its odometer last year, according to Chris Baker, 43, who has driven it for six years.

In the Westlake and Pico-Union districts, the area is roughly bounded by Hoover Street on the west, 12th Street on the south, the downtown high-rise district on the east and Beverly Boulevard on the north.

In years past, the neighborhood was one of the city’s more elegant places. These days, however, it is jammed with 1,125 large apartment houses. Countless old mansions and Victorian homes that have been converted into four-plexes or flophouses help make it the city’s most densely populated area, fire officials say.

The area can be one of the most dangerous, too. Firefighters wear bulletproof vests when dispatched to assist shooting and stabbing victims.

“You go to sleep to the sound of automatic gunfire in the distance and you think, ‘Well, that will be our next call,’ ” said paramedic Eileen McInerney, 39.

Because thieves try to sneak in, firemen have learned to be quick on the trigger with the home-style garage-door opener they use to close the station’s sliding doors when they leave to answer alarms, said firefighter Jorge Perez, 33.

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“We’ve all had stereos, clothes, tape decks taken from our cars parked out back,” added apparatus operator Mike Proffitt, 41. “We have 32 active gangs in our district. One of the firefighters here wrestled a gun away from a guy on a rescue call.”

Firefighters could walk to some of their emergency calls, said pumper truck driver John Kesler, 35, pointing out the station’s front door.

“We had a shooting right there. There was a stabbing over there at the telephone booth. The guy two doors up at the liquor store has shot two people trying to rob him since I’ve been here.

“We call the doorway here the Big Screen. Because you can see it all from the station.”

Fires in the aging neighborhood can be spectacular. The cover of the Firehouse magazine that profiles the “Busiest Station in the Nation” features a color photo of hook-and-ladder crewman Waldie Bragham leaping from the roof of a blazing, gingerbread-decorated Victorian house.

“Some of these old pre-1933 brick buildings--you can almost hit them with the stream from a hose and wash the lime mortar out,” said Capt. Terry Cooper, 41.

But because of a new law that requires sprinklers in multiple dwellings, apartment house fires are on the decrease. False alarms are on the rise, however.

“The majority of high-rise calls are false,” said pumper truck driver Howard Kormann, 38, as he zigzagged along 7th Street, racing toward a fire call at the towering Citicorp Center, at the corner of Figueroa and 7th.

This one was, too: Dust from tile-cutters’ equipment triggered a 41st-floor smoke detector. But Station 11 firefighters wouldn’t know that until they took an elevator to the 29th floor and then hiked the rest of the way up, each carrying more than 100 pounds of equipment and hoses.

On the way back to the station, the firefighters sprawled wearily in their fire truck seats. As he drove, Kormann worried that some immigrants in the neighborhood look down on firefighters because convicts do the job in the countries they come from.

When the convoy paused at a corner, however, a group of small children waved from a yard. “Hi, bomberos !” they shouted excitedly, using the Spanish word for fireman.

Grinning, the men from Station 11 returned the salute with a short blast from a siren. They straightened up in their seats, energized once more.

A Day in the Life of Fire Station 11

As compiled from the station’s journal, here are the emergency calls handled by firefighters at Station 11 on Saturday, Nov. 16. Additionally, the station’s two-member paramedic squad responded to 17 rescue calls. “Task Force 11" consists of an engine, a hook-and-ladder truck and a pumper truck. The engine responds to minor incidents alone.

7:30 a.m.: Traffic accident on West 9th Street.

9:30 to 11 a.m.: Drill. All members practiced ladder technique and discussed fire from previous shift.

11:15 a.m.: Engine 11 responded to an unconscious person at 5th Street and Union Avenue.

11:24 a.m.: Truck 11 to a stabbing in the 1100 block of Grandview Street.

11:36 a.m.: Engine 11 responded to chest-pain victim at the station.

12:19 p.m.: Engine 11 to a rubbish fire at 6th and Bonnie Brae streets.

12:31 p.m.: Truck 11 to an assault victim in the 2200 block of 8th Street.

12:58 p.m.: Task Force 11 to a false automatic alarm in the 3200 block of West 6th Street.

1:10 p.m.: Task Force to false automatic alarm in the 900 block of South Manhattan Place.

1:29 p.m.: Task Force 11 to a water flow alarm in the 200 block of Wilshire Boulevard.

1:52 p.m.: Truck 11 to a baby locked in house in the 900 block of Rampart Boulevard.

3:04 p.m.: Engine 11 to a dead adult in 700 block of Witmer Boulevard.

3:26 p.m.: Engine 11 to a rescue in 500 block of Rampart Boulevard.

5:01 p.m.: Engine 11 to a traffic accident in the 2700 block of West Olympic Street.

5:07 p.m.: Engine 11 to a sick baby in the 700 block of Berendo Avenue.

6:46 p.m.: Engine 11 to a rescue call--unconscious man in the 400 block of South Union Avenue.

7:16 p.m.: Task Force 11 to a false automatic alarm at apartment house in 1400 block of Valencia Street.

7:50 p.m.: Truck 11 to a fall injury in the 1500 block of West 8th Street.

7:46 p.m.: Engine 11 to a seizure in the 520 block of South Union Avenue.

8 p.m.: Engine 11 to investigate smoke in 1200 block of South Union Avenue.

8:36 p.m.: Engine 11 to a stabbing at 7th and Bonnie Brae streets.

10:54 p.m.: Task Force 11 to a sheared sprinkler head in the 700 block of Garland Avenue.

11:28 p.m.: Engine 11 to a rescue--diabetic in the 700 block of Garland Avenue.

1:30 a.m.: Task Force 11 to a false automatic alarm in the 1100 block of Washington Boulevard.

2:18 a.m.: Task Force 11 to false automatic alarm in the 1100 block of Wilshire Boulevard.

2:17 a.m.: Engine 11 to gasoline in street in the 400 block of South Lake Street.

5 a.m.: Task Force 11 to a fully involved structure fire in 400 block of Burlington Avenue.

SOURCE: Los Angeles City Fire Department


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