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
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
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
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.
"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
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
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.