So What Does A Firefighter Actually Do All Day?

April 27, 2017

“Did you know that they never stop painting the golden gate bridge? They start from one side, they paint, and then they go back and they start again, and they paint again,” Captain David Ciappara says. “Because by the time they get to the end, the front needs it again. That is how our [job] is.”

In addition to firefighting, Captain David Ciappara works with the city to negotiate new contracts for firefighters.

Across the span of one year, firefighters at the Contra Costa Fire Department complete a ridiculous amount of tasks. “Our schedule is totally full of all kinds of things. We have a lot of continuous education,” Ciappara says. “We have basically classes that we do, spread out all the time.” Ciappara goes on to describe myriads of other activities firefighters accomplish, including inspecting fire hydrants and businesses, participating in city board meetings, reviewing the requirements they are responsible for, updating the fire trucks, and even public outreach. “By the time you get to Christmas, guess what, back again you go,” he says in order to illustrate how these tasks truly are a never ending cycle, exactly like painting the Golden Gate Bridge.

These numerous activities and trainings demonstrate how the perception of firefighters is often very wrong. When one thinks of a firefighter, one might think of a group of people sitting around a fire station, idly waiting for someone to call 911 for their service. And when a call does come in, the firefighters slide down a pole, bid farewell to the station’s dalmatian, and rush to fight a raging inferno. Lazy stretches of the day punctuated by sparse moments of frenzy. Sound familiar?

Ciappara agrees with this assessment: “You’re always going to fires, or always sitting around watching TV.” And although they are also often seen as heroes, many of these stereotypes unjustly define a hard working, busy group of people that are just acting in their line of work: keeping the general public safe.

On top of all of the tasks the firefighters must accomplish, they also have to be prepared every moment of every day for 911 calls. Even though their days are planned as if no calls will come in, it is fully expected that calls will interrupt the many activities they have planned.

One of these calls occurs during our interview, and I am lucky enough to witness it firsthand.

Engineer Candy Emert has been with the Contra Costa Fire Department for about 15 years.

With only a few minutes before I am to depart, someone calls about a structure fire on Washington Avenue, about 10 minutes away. We immediately stop talking; Ciappara and Engineer Candy Emert listen intently to the information being broadcast across a loudspeaker. After learning the location, the two share a look and a nod, recognizing that this call is not in their jurisdiction. 

“That’s 61,” Ciappara says, referring to a station number. Then he turns to me and said, “So this fire is down at Point Richmond. You’ll get the nearest four fire engines. You’ll get 61, 67, 64, and 66 I believe.”

“Maybe 62,” Emert chimes in.

Ciappara adds, “Now those stations are out of the mix because of the structure fire. They are not available. They are committed.” As a result, Ciappara’s team will have to cover for these temporarily out of service stations.

This particular instance is an example of the fire department responding to an important matter. However, at times, firefighters are called upon to perform more trivial tasks.

“People don’t know how to turn off their sprinklers,” Emert says. For another example, she says that a “lady called for a cat stuck in her garage door opener. People think that we go to fires all the time. A very small percentage of [them are] actual fires.”

Paramedic Nick Lundberg initially worked in Law Enforcement.

Most of the time, firefighters have to respond to more serious matters. For example, a few days before the interview, firefighter and paramedic Nick Lundberg and some fellow firefighters were called for a grave case.   

“[A lady] had a heart attack right in front of us,” Lundberg says. “And we were able to save her life.”

Although these three firefighters know all of the difficult, varying work that is needed of them now, they did not know they wanted to fall into this line of work all their life.

When I asked Ciappara whether he always knew he wanted to be a firefighter, he responds, “No. I became an EMT. I was told that [I] might want to consider the fire service because it’s a career as an EMT.”

As for Emert, she initially believed that she was going to delve into law enforcement as a career. However, she received some influence from a good friend’s father that ultimately changed her mind: “He was like, ‘what do you want to do that [police work] for, come ride with me.’ I did a station visit and rode along with him, and I knew, right then and there, that that was what I wanted to do. So I knew, fairly early on.”

Lundberg also wanted to be in law enforcement initially. But when he started working with the Contra Costa Fire Department, he also changed his mind: “I started going on strike teams with guys from this department. Then they kind of convinced me that this was the best thing to do, so then I went to paramedic school, and got hired here.”

Other than Emert, who was working overtime, all of them work at The Kensington Fire Station, which is one of three stations in the Contra Costa Fire Department. The other two are situated in the neighboring town of El Cerrito.

These stations and fire departments work very closely together. Each station has a district that it is primarily in charge of. However, as illustrated by the call-in, stations must be ready to cover for each other.

The firefighters told me that working in this area, while not the busiest place to work, was very rewarding.

When I ask Lundberg about whether he feels appreciated, he states without hesitation, “Yes, very much so. The community reminds us of that all the time.”

When I ask Ciappara the same question, he says: “I think we’re very lucky–these people appreciate every single thing we do. Almost across the board.”

Emert then chimes in, adding, “I mean today, for example, we’re sitting there cutting down a tree–we didn’t have to cut down the tree, it was private property, but we went above and beyond what we had to do and they were very grateful. Thank you very much, you know? Something as simple as that.”

“We see it from residents in a lot of ways, sometimes we’re out and about and people say ‘thank you for your service!’ During Christmas, people show up with cookies,” Ciappara says. “Our ballot measures are supported by a rate unheard of in any other community. We’ve had overwhelming support.”

While being a firefighter might not always be easy, it is clear that these three find it very rewarding. Although they can be confronted with stereotypes that do not recognize the hard work they do, the town of Kensington demonstrates how they are still appreciated for all the good they bring to society.


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