Love of Job Still Burns Brightly for Firefighter


Just look at the facts of his 50 years of experience--40 with the Los Angeles City Fire Department--and it is clear that Larry Schneider, a rugged-looking fellow with a stubborn cowlick, holds his love for firefighting closer to his heart than the Pall Mall cigarettes he carries in his breast pocket.

Schneider made his first ill-advised jump into firefighting at the age of 6 when he followed his firefighter father up a ladder and onto the roof of a burning building. His father, Ted, who started with the city Fire Department in 1912, was mad at his wife for letting the boy get away, but the other firefighters loved it.

“What impressed me the most was that firefighters thought it was funny,” said Schneider, now 66 and chief of Battalion 15, which covers the northwest Valley. He learned early about the camaraderie of the life of a firefighter.


Schneider and the men under him had to draw on a lifetime of experience when the Jan. 17 earthquake struck. As they rolled out of Station 28 in Porter Ranch, Schneider said, the area looked like it had been hit by a B-52 bomber.

The first hour after the quake was the most difficult, he said. Schneider had only one fire company to send to the Northridge Meadows apartments, where 16 people died.

“I told them I didn’t have any backup for them at all,” Schneider said. “If they had gotten trapped inside, I had nobody else to get them out.”

To be a good firefighter requires experience, training and the willingness to take a calculated risk. Although the Northridge earthquake pushed firefighters to the limit, no one under his command died or suffered serious injuries, Schneider said.

“We lucked out, we really did,” said Schneider, who was in command of fighting the Topanga/Chatsworth brush fire last year when the blaze overran one of the engines and critically burned four men. Schneider lost a brother, Bob, who was killed by a bulldozer while fighting a fire in Malibu in 1940. And Schneider himself once fell through a burning roof, seriously burning his legs. He was saved by a fellow firefighter who grabbed him by the collar.

Firefighting has become safer during the years Schneider has been on the job, with the introduction of breathing apparatuses and fire-resistant clothing. He remembers handling mattress fires in hotels where “you had to just breathe the stuff until you put it out.” The smoke could cause vomiting, and still can, as the gases are absorbed through the skin.


But having all that protection has its downside, Schneider said. It gives a false sense of security and leads firefighters into spots that are far too dangerous.

He said that in the old days days a firefighter would feel his way into a burning building and could tell from the heat and smoke where to go.

“It made me a better firefighter,” Schneider said.

Schneider’s 40th anniversary with the Los Angeles Fire Department was last month, but the celebration continues. His battalion has organized a dinner for July 28, saluting his 50 years in firefighting. He previously had been with the Torrance and county fire departments.

“It’s kind of embarrassing, to tell you the truth,” Schneider said of the fuss over his anniversary. Other firefighters have gone on much longer, and Schneider talks the same way.

“Probably another 20 years, and then I’ll call it quits, that’s what I tell people,” Schneider said.

The thing he expects to miss the most is sitting at a dinner table with a bunch of firefighters, sharing in that camaraderie that he first understood when he was 6.