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COVER STORY : A Family Tradition : Second- and Third-Generation Schneiders Are Carrying On the Practice of Fighting Fires

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Firefighting is a family affair.

They’re everywhere, these firefighting families, families chock-full of fathers or sons or brothers or uncles or cousins or nephews all dedicated to fighting fires--"putting the wet stuff on the red stuff,” as firefighters say. Perhaps more than in any other profession, the desire to become a firefighter seems to be passed on genetically, like a hot spot in the family DNA code.

There aren’t any statistics on it, no known scholarly studies. But stop by almost any fire station in the Southeast/Long Beach area, Los Angeles County, or the whole country for that matter, and chances are you’ll see the phenomenon in action.

“There’s tons of those kinds of families” among about 50,000 paid and volunteer firefighters in California, says Wally Hurst of the California State Firefighters Assn. “The joke is that it’s probably some sort of genetic defect.” (So far, at least, it’s a predominantly male gene: Less than 1% of firefighters statewide are women.)

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In Long Beach, Deputy Chief Rick DuRee is the son and grandson of Long Beach firefighters--and he may soon see his own son become a fourth-generation firefighter. In Compton, Fire Chief Milford Fonza, who started his career as the first black firefighter in Iowa, is the father of a firefighter.

Hawthorne Battalion Chief Bruce Bradford is the son-in-law of a former firefighter. His son, Craig, is a Hawthorne firefighter, and Craig’s wife, Cathy, is a Long Beach firefighter. In the Los Angeles City Fire Department, there are the Olsen brothers--Raymond, Robert and Richard--all of them current or retired battalion chiefs, all of them the sons of former Battalion Chief Walter E. Olsen.

But of the many firefighting families, in perhaps none does that hot spot in the DNA burn more brightly than in the Schneider firefighting family. Ted, Larry D., Paul P., Howard N., Larry P., Scott, Howard R., Phil, Paul R.--they are or were all firefighters, spanning three generations, accumulating between them almost 2 1/2 centuries of firefighting experience.

And that’s not even counting the four firefighting cousins.

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You’d be hard-pressed to name a major fire in the Los Angeles area within memory that hasn’t had a Schneider or two, or three, fighting it: the Hollywood Park Race Track fire in Inglewood in 1949, the 1961 Bel-Air fire that destroyed 500 homes, the 1965 Watts riots fires, the 1992 riot fires, the Los Angeles firestorms of 1993.

It all started with grandpa Ted.

Ted Schneider started working for the Los Angeles City Fire Department in 1912, a time when firetrucks were still pulled by horses. He was only 17, a year short of the minimum age, but he wangled a job as an “extra man,” available when needed. He was paid by the fire.

Ted later began working for the Fire Department full time. In 1923 he moved to the county fire department and began organizing fire districts in what are now Watts, Gardena and Baldwin Hills.

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Meanwhile, he and his wife, Adelaide, had five sons. Three of them--Howard N., Larry D. and Paul P.--became Torrance and Los Angeles city and county firefighters. (Another son, Bob, was killed in 1940 when a bulldozer rolled over on him while he was working for the Forest Service clearing a firebreak in the Malibu area.)

Ted Schneider retired in 1955 after more than four decades of firefighting. When he died in 1977, three of his grandsons also had become firefighters. Eventually, five of Ted’s grandsons would become firefighters--Larry P. with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, Phil and Paul R. with the Los Angeles County Fire Department at stations in Lakewood, Huntington Park and Willowbrook, among others, and Howard R. and Scott with the Torrance Fire Department.

For the Schneider boys, becoming firefighters seemed like the natural thing to do.

“We all grew up hearing fire bells,” says recently retired Torrance Fire Capt. Howard N. Schneider, 62, who spent 40 years with the department. He means that literally: To receive fire calls when the fire company was out of the station, Ted Schneider installed an extension of the firehouse phone in the family home near the corner of 97th Street and Normandie Avenue. Adelaide served as the temporary dispatcher.

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“My father lived (at) the fire department,” Howard N. Schneider says. “Our whole lives revolved around it.”

“I was 6 years old when I discovered I wanted to become a firefighter,” says Larry D. Schneider, 66, a Los Angeles City Fire Department battalion chief. “My mother and I were watching Dad fight a fire, and when my mother wasn’t looking, I snuck away and climbed up one of the ladders and got on the roof. One of the firemen saw me and grabbed me and carried me down, and of course my mother was horrified. But I knew then that that’s what I was going to be.”

“My father was probably the biggest influence on my life,” says Paul P. Schneider, 71, a retired County Fire Department assistant chief. “I used to hang out at the fire station all the time and get to see the firemen. They were a great bunch of guys. It was only natural for a kid to want to be like them.”

For the succeeding generation of Schneiders, the dose of firefighter indoctrination increased exponentially: They got it not only from their fathers and grandfather but from their uncles as well.

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“When you grow up in a firefighter family like ours, you hear all the war stories,” says Larry’s son, Phil, 31, an 11-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “The fires, the rescues--the job is what everybody talks about. It’s exciting to a kid. It makes you want to be a part of it.”

“I spent more Christmases and birthdays at the fire station when I was a kid than I did at home,” says Paul R. Schneider, 27, a Los Angeles County firefighter assigned to Station 164 in Huntington Park. He also has worked at Station 41 in Willowbrook. “The fire station was home in a lot of ways.”

Children of firefighters cite several reasons why they wanted to become firefighters themselves.

For one thing, it’s steady work--there will always be fires, and thus firefighters. It’s also pretty good money. According to the State Firefighters Assn., firefighters in the Los Angeles area make $45,000 to $50,000 a year, base salary; fire captains average about $70,000.

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But the major reason the children of firefighters want to become firefighters is admiration. They admired Dad and his firefighter colleagues, and they admired the way Dad and his friends were admired by others. On any elementary school playground in America, to have a dad who was a firefighter was considered far cooler than to have a dad who was a lawyer or a banker or even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Sure, there are some drawbacks to the firefighter’s life--for example, the near certainty that sometime in your career you’re going to get hurt. In 1992, the last year for which figures are available, 1,641 firefighters were injured in California--about one out of every 30 on the job.

Every one of the Schneiders has been injured while fighting fires. Howard N. Schneider, for example, was forced to retire this year because of heart and lung damage he suffered when he tore off his protective face mask to warn his fellow firefighters about toxic materials in a 1985 industrial fire in Torrance. Phil Schneider suffered first- and second-degree face burns battling brush fires. Larry D. Schneider was severely burned when a roof collapsed and he fell into the fire. And so on throughout the Schneider family, a litany of burns and bruises and scrapes and breaks and seared lungs.

Despite the risk, or maybe at least partly because it is a dangerous and daring occupation, the children of firefighters seem driven to do whatever is necessary to follow their fathers into the station house.

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Scott Schneider, for example, wanted to be a firefighter so badly that he “divorced” his firefighter father.

It’s not quite like it sounds. Howard N. Schneider adopted Scott when he was 2 years old, and like every other Schneider kid, Scott grew up wanting to be a firefighter like his dad.

“It was all I ever wanted to do,” Scott says.

In 1975 Scott got a job as a firefighter at Hughes Aircraft Co., but his ambition was to become a city firefighter. A few years later, there was an opening at the Torrance Fire Department. Scott was qualified for the job, but there was one problem: Torrance had a nepotism ordinance specifying that immediate family members of city workers couldn’t hold jobs in the same department. And Scott’s dad, Howard, was a Torrance Fire Department captain.

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So Scott called a friend of his and started legal proceedings to have the buddy and his wife adopt him. When the adoption went through, it legally severed Scott’s earlier adoption by Howard; Scott was, legally speaking, no longer Howard’s son, and thus could join the Torrance department. The Torrance nepotism ordinance later was thrown out, and Scott was readopted by Howard.

Being the son or daughter of a firefighter still can be a disadvantage in getting a firefighter’s job, at least in the same department.

Last fall, for example, there was an outcry in Long Beach when seven of the 21 applicants chosen to attend the city’s firefighting academy turned out to be the sons of Long Beach firefighters. The 21 had been selected from more than 600 applicants who were considered qualified, who in turn had been chosen from 5,000 total applicants--an indication of the tough competition for firefighting jobs.

The percentage of firefighters’ sons in the group was not unusual. Ken Brondell, a Los Angeles City Fire Department firefighter and a director of the State Firefighters Assn., remembered that when he attended firefighting academy 25 years ago, one-third of his classmates were sons of firefighters. That was about average, Brondell says.

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Firefighters say it’s only natural for their offspring to do well in fire department selections.

“There’s probably an advantage for them because they tend to be more tenacious in seeking the jobs,” Brondell says. “They start sooner, and they focus themselves on getting the education they need to make them more acceptable.”

Nevertheless, a number of Long Beach observers cried foul, saying that the sons of firefighters obviously had been given special consideration. As a result, five of the firefighters’ sons were bumped, at least temporarily, from the academy list.

One of them was Michael DuRee, 26, the son of Long Beach Deputy Chief Rick DuRee. Michael would have been--and eventually may still be--the fourth generation to serve.

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“It was disappointing,” says Rick DuRee, adding that he understands the public perception that firefighters’ sons had an advantage. They do have an advantage, but not an unfair one. “You do have an edge because you know what to do to prepare yourself.”

“I think you’re going to find fewer sons and daughters on the same department,” DuRee says. “But the tradition will continue.”

The concern about nepotism, or the appearance of nepotism, is being felt in other fire departments as well. In the Lynwood Fire Department, for example, engineer Swen Swenson, a 24-year veteran, says his son Swen Jr., 24, wants to become a Lynwood firefighter and has been working for the department as a volunteer. But such a hire might appear to be favoritism.

“I’d be proud for my son to be a firefighter, and he’d be a good one,” Swenson Sr. says. “But there’s a concern there.”

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Swenson Jr. is looking for jobs in other fire departments, his father says.

Firefighters predict the firefighting family tradition will also include more minority families in the future. After decades of inequities in hiring, fire departments have opened--or been forced to open--their ranks to minorities. (The Los Angeles City Fire Department, for example, which was less than 6% minority 20 years ago, now is 37% minority.) And it appears that the trend of firefighters’ children becoming firefighters extends to minority firefighting families.

“Already we’re seeing black and Hispanic firefighters whose sons and daughters are on the job now,” says Brondell of the firefighters association. “I think that will only increase in coming years.”

But some see concerns about nepotism working against minority members.

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“My son wanted nothing else in life but to be a firefighter,” says Compton Fire Chief Fonza, an African American whose son became a firefighter in his home state of Iowa. Fonza said his son had tried to join the Pasadena Fire Department when Fonza was a battalion chief there, but had been turned away because of concerns about nepotism.

“Nepotism is a double-edged sword,” says Fonza. “Twenty-five years ago we (minority members) had to fight nepotism in fire departments to get the doors open to us. Now, when the offspring of minorities are starting to come of age to be firefighters, they start enforcing the nepotism rules.”

And what about the Schneider family? Is there a fourth generation of firefighters waiting in the wings?

“I’d love to have my kids continue the tradition,” Torrance firefighter/paramedic Scott Schneider says of his 10-year-old son, Nicholas, and 6-year-old daughter, Natalie.

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And will they?

“Well,” says Schneider, “their favorite TV show is ‘Rescue 911.”’


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