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The new guys

Mary A. Castillo

Ask any firefighter in Laguna Beach and they will tell you that

their first night in the fire house was an eye-opening experience.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Eng. Carl Klass admitted, even though he had

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been a volunteer for two years when he joined the department in 1977.

“I was scared to death,” said Eng. Dennis Marsh, who began his

career with the Lake Arrowhead Fire Department in 1981 (he joined

Laguna in 1989). “I had first aid training and I hadn’t even been on

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a fire truck. But my captain told me that people expect you to do

your job and they don’t know it’s your first day.”

Although they didn’t sleep so much as a wink that first shift,

Marsh, Klass and Capt. Steve Rening knew they were hooked for life.

Now with 65 years of experience among them, they see a new breed of

firefighters -- or “probies” as they call them -- join the ranks.

“In the old days you climbed a ladder and then took a test,” Klass

said. “Now in order to take the test you have to have at least an

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associate’s degree.”

Unlike the “tailboard riders” of yesteryear, firefighters usually

have a bachelor’s degree and fire academy training before they get

hired by a department. Marsh estimates that this caliber of recruits

saves a department anywhere between $25,000 and $40,000.

Rening, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a Laguna

firefighter, now stresses to his own son to get his degree first and

then consider the family tradition.

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“A college degree makes you a more well-rounded person,” he said.

“It’s paramount for any young person.”

Although education is the key to get in through the door, out in

the real world it never outweighs experience.

“They come out educated but not experienced,” Klass said.

“You need experience to teach the younger guys and tell them when

they shouldn’t run into that burning building because by sight you

know it’s coming down,” Marsh clarified.

What makes being a firefighter in Laguna Beach more interesting is

that these professionals have to be masters of all trades. Unlike big

urban departments that offer specialized teams for arson, rescue and

hazardous materials, Laguna firefighters have to be ready and able to

handle any call -- delivering babies, extinguishing house fires,

cutting people out of mangled cars or sewage spills. And they’re

equipped to go to any major fire in the state at any time.

“When people call 911 they expect that we’re going to be there and

be able to handle any problem,” Marsh said, pointing to the red

trucks that now provide closed cabs and are equipped for fire,

medical aid, rope rescues and hazardous material calls. “There are a

lot more hazards out there, and we have to be schooled in anything

that could happen.”

Walk by Station Two at Agate and Glenneyre streets -- or any

station for that matter -- and chances are you won’t find these guys

playing cards or watching TV. Because of the increasing dangers of

terrorism, hazardous material emergencies, earthquakes and everyday

activities such as driving your car, fire crews spend their shifts

training, inspecting equipment as well as performing residential and

commercial inspections, all the while keeping their ears trained for

those three tones that send them into their turn-outs and onto the

rig.

Since Sept. 11, they have has seen an almost overwhelming

outpouring of support from the community. But the three of them look

at those New York firefighters as guys who were doing their jobs;

just as they would have done had they been in that position.

“We don’t hesitate. We can’t hesitate,” Klass said. “They were

killed attempting to rescue people and they got 25,000 people out of

those buildings before they went down.”

“It’s part of our job,” Marsh said. “Rescue is our first priority

followed by saving property and then environment.”

They’re particularly proud that their training and teamwork

prevented loss of life during the Laguna fire of 1993.

Although it’s a job that brings Marsh, Rening and Klass into

people’s lives when they’re hurt or watching the destruction of their

worldly belongings, they’re proud of what they’ve done and what they

can do. Even with its dangers, Marsh is pleased to see his own son

following in his footsteps.

“It was the proudest day of my life when he called me and told me

he was in the fire academy,” he said. “He’s now learning the stuff

that I know and it’s so much fun hearing him talk about his

experiences.”

Residents are invited to take tours at all of Laguna’s fire

stations from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., tomorrow. Station One is at City

Hall on Forest Avenue; Station Two is on the corner of Agate and

Glenneyre streets; Station Three is on the corner of Alta Laguna Road

and Tree Top Lane; and Station Four is on the corner of 2nd Avenue

and Virginia Way in South Laguna. For information and common sense

safety tips, please call (949) 497-0700.


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