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Long Beach fire stations in hot pursuit of creative icons

Perched atop the Belmont Heights neighborhood firehouse in Long Beach, the Batman figurine — his gaze steady, his pose vigilant — looms as a symbol of the busy nights in the neighborhood that Fire Station 4 serves.
(Cheryl A. Guerrero, Los Angeles Times)

At the corner of Loma Avenue and 4th Street, the Dark Knight keeps watch over the sleeping town below.

Perched atop the firehouse, the Batman figurine — his gaze steady, his pose vigilant — looms as a symbol of the busy nights in the Belmont Heights neighborhood on Long Beach’s east side that Fire Station 4 serves.

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The Belmont Heights station is one of several in Long Beach that have adopted icons that reflect the area they serve, following a New York City tradition that dates to the time of horse-drawn fire wagons.

Like the Caped Crusader, the Belmont Heights station mirrors the area’s largely professional population, folks who leave during the day, but may well need help in the evening when they come home. Thus, Batman’s on watch.

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The tradition began after Long Beach firefighters visited New York firehouses following Sept. 11. Since then the Long Beach fire stations have been vying for the most creative and intricate design.

“They try to do something everyone will be proud of,” said paramedic Ty D’Amico, who is based out of Station 18, which watches over the neighborhoods near El Dorado Park. “You wear that like honor.”

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One of the first stations to craft a logo was Station 10, which serves the city’s Cambodia Town. The station adopted a fire-breathing dragon that highlighted the Asian heritage of the east-side neighborhood. Firefighters illustrated the serpent with the vibrant green of Polytechnic High School, and incorporated the colors and the jack rabbit from the school that lies within the station’s coverage area.

Fire engineer Gary Schall was part of the team that spent four to six months breathing life into the serpent.

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“It seemed like there was a lot of energy to bring [a logo] that was representative of the community we serve,” Schall said.

Which station came next remains disputed, but it may have been Station 16’s voluptuous pinup girl with the words “Daugherty Field” around a silver frame, a tip of the hat to the old name of the town’s airport. Or it may have been Station 18’s angry bee, reflecting the numerous bee sting-related calls firefighters have responded to over the years. Then again, it could have been Station 3 with its icon of a thief running off with a bag of fire, symbolizing the Daisy Avenue station’s ability to creep into every neighborhood where there was a big fire. The firefighters’ nickname? The “Poachers.”

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The details of each icon are distinct, every nuance intentional. Many icons are in the shape of the Maltese cross, a symbol used throughout firefighter culture, according Jake Heflin, a city firefighter.

Station 2, located on Third Street in an area of town with a large lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population, has an icon of a wolf in sheep’s clothing holding a pink-tipped ax with the city’s historic Villa Riviera in the background. The pink tool is reflective of the community’s demographics, sheep a nod to the long gone papier mache ovine named Zeep that once occupied the station’s lawn.

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In the northernmost corner of the city, Station 12’s logo is steeped in local legend.

Lore has it that the spirit of retired firefighter John Makemson — who died in the 1990s — remains in the 84-year-old building, the so-called “Ghost House.” In Station 12’s symbol a white phantom dons a leather fireman’s hat and clutches a halligan and ax while levitating in the center of a horseshoe. The horseshoe reflects the pastime often played by firefighters there.

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The tradition sprung from insurance markers once placed on the front of a home symbolizing that the owner paid for fire protection services. Before there were municipal fire departments, the makeshift firefighters wouldn’t stop for a home ablaze without the appropriate marker.

New York firefighters kept the custom of having an image reflect its firehouses, and all of the 200-plus firehouses in New York City have one, according to Long Beach Fire Department Deputy Chief Rich Brandt, who came to Long Beach from the Empire State. Long Beach is one of the few fire departments to have such a tradition on the West Coast, department officials said.

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The relatively young tradition hasn’t gone unnoticed by residents. Belmont Heights resident Mike Schnee, 50, said he’s spotted the Batman atop the building down the street and maybe snapped a photo or two of it.

“I thought it was an inside joke or something,” Schnee said.

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Ed Gallock, 57, lives three doors down from the corner of Loma and 4th, and said the superhero is a fixture.

“It’s just always kind of been there. It’s definitely not offensive,” Gallock said, joking that “it’s good-natured — and protective.”

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The firefighters inside have noticed parents pointing to the roof to show their children the watchful figure. The Belmont Heights Batman recently received a face-lift and was taken down while he got a new cape and coat of paint. Over those two days, five or six neighbors visited the station inquiring about the missing superhero, said Andrew Dorame, who works as a medic at the station.

Inside the building, a gray mural of the bat signal hovers above the pole where firefighters slide down when emergency calls come in. A bold number four hovers in the middle.

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“I’m definitely proud to be here,” said Eric Volivitch, who works at the station. “It’s really who we are.… I’m proud to be busy.”

lauren.williams@latimes.com


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