Imagine a pager beeping in the middle of the night, waking you from the depths of a dead sleep. There’s no option to simply ignore it or crawl back under the covers. Instead, you must immediately get dressed and mentally prepare yourself for the unknown.
When you return home, maybe you smell like smoke; perhaps you’ve just had to extricate an injured child from a crushed vehicle; or maybe you simply needed to assist a senior who slipped and fell.
Whether it’s still dark outside or the sun is starting to peek over the horizon – and regardless of your exhaustion – you need to decompress before you leave once again. But this time, you’ll head off to your regular day job; the one that pays the bills.
What drives our Ben Lomond volunteer firefighters to heed the distress call that awakens them at 2am, even if they need to get up for work the next morning? It’s a combination of love for this community; a desire to help their neighbors.
And – many will tell you – it’s an internal calling that runs through their blood and makes them wired for public service.
A Way to Give Back
For Hunter Anderson, whose dad “Tex” worked for the Ben Lomond Fire Department (BLFD) for 20 years, joining the department was a natural progression.
“I grew up at BLF, hanging around my dad and the guys,” the 24-year-old Firefighter said. “It’s a tight-knit family and I believe if you’re able bodied and able to do the job, you should give back any way you can.”
Anderson is a member of BLFD’s Swift Water Rescue Team, the only such team in San Lorenzo Valley and one of only about 50 in the entire state of California. The lifelong resident is currently training to become a BLFD Engineer.
In addition, the San Lorenzo Valley High School graduate works for a construction company installing and servicing wood stoves and fireplaces, while he awaits an opening in the next paramedic program.
“The community of Ben Lomond is a pretty special place,” he said, adding a bit of advice to anyone considering the same path. “Show up, be consistent, and have a lot of fun with a great group of guys. This department will invest in you as long as you’re willing to invest in the department.”
For some, like BLFD Driver/Operator James Sanders, that two-way investment spans many years.
When not performing his regular duties as an Engineer/Paramedic for the Albany Fire Department, Sanders has volunteered off and on for more than 10 years.
“Ben Lomond is a great department to volunteer for,” he said. “The leadership and the equipment are outstanding.”
Sanders, 37, was born and raised in the community and said he’d tell anyone wanting to volunteer to really listen to the old timers’ experiences and respect the tradition. Even in a small community, there’s a lot to learn.
“My roots run deep in BLFD,” Sanders said, “and sometimes people need to be reminded that the fire is just as hot in Ben Lomond as it is anywhere.”
Training in Action
Many volunteers come from a long line of firefighters, and besides having generations of history in Ben Lomond and a special connection to the area, they seek out the training opportunities provided by the department.
BLFD Chief Stacie Brownlee said volunteers need to have EMT training, but there are many types of training available, including Hazmat, swift water rescue, heavy rescue (building collapse), confined space rescue, wildland fire, over the bank, and others. Volunteers participate in training exercises every Tuesday evening, and the department offers to pay for ongoing education and courses for those who have the time and interest.
Volunteer Firefighter/EMT Xavier Chavez, 25, is currently in training to become an Engineer with BLFD. He’s been volunteering for about two years, and is a paid firefighter at Cal Fire for Santa Cruz County at the Big Creek station in Davenport.
“We get to do as much training as we want, we just have to go down to the station and put in the time,” he said. “There are always calls going off, so we come (to the station) for emergencies as much as we want, or as much as we have time for if we aren’t working other jobs outside of Ben Lomond.”
Chavez said BLFD is a special department with a great group of firefighters, engineers, captains and chiefs, adding that he can’t imagine another place like it.
“I’ve always had a dream and desire to be a part of the fire service, and I am so blessed to have been given the opportunity to do so through BLFD,” he said. “I truly love these people like my family and feel comfortable putting my life on the line and putting my life in any other of these guys’ hands.”
According to BLFD Engineer Dan Arndt, about 85% of fire departments in the country are completely or mostly volunteer, which offers significant savings in the communities they serve.
“This department has always been volunteer and as such has saved the community 100s of thousands – if not millions – of dollars a year in taxes that would normally be collected to support a paid department,” he said.
The fire station’s doors are kept open through a small percentage of property tax revenues, and new equipment and firefighter turnouts (protective gear) are purchased with donations through the Firefighter Auxiliary and other fundraising efforts, like the annual Pancake Breakfast. Arndt said the department applies for grants as well.
“The community can help by understanding the true cost of maintaining the volunteer fire department,” he said. “It’s a fraction of the cost if they were supporting a paid department, so throwing a few extra bucks in the boot at the pancake breakfast can make a difference.”
A Community Investment
Volunteer firefighters are a special breed; it takes a unique person to volunteer their time – and safety – to act on a moment’s notice when there’s an emergency. In a mountain town like Ben Lomond, it’s critical to have local resources available at any time – and it’s the volunteers who make that happen.
BLFD Engineer Matt Boynton was born and raised in Ben Lomond. Other than a 4-year hiatus in which he served in the military, he has been with the department for 10 years.
“I love the small community that we live in,” he said. “I grew up with my ‘daycare’ being a firehouse with my grandfather (Ken Boynton) and had the opportunity to learn first hand from a couple of valley legends – my grandfather and Nick Pagnini.”
Aside from volunteering at BLFD, the younger Boynton works for his dad – a fencing contractor – and attends school full time, finishing up his last prerequisite for paramedic school.
Though not with BLFD, the 28-year-old comes from a line of firefighters, including his grandfather, his father, and four uncles – all who actively served with Zayante Fire for many years.
“It’s always been a bit of a running joke that I am the bastard child from Zayante and that one day I’ll go back there and reclaim the ‘throne’ for my family,” Boynton said. “But all of the members of our department care very deeply for the Ben Lomond community and that’s why we risk our lives to keep others safe.”
He added that being a volunteer firefighter is a big commitment of time and energy, and that calls come at any time – day or night. And regardless of what time the call comes in, they have to be ready to assist.
“Someone once told me that the reason someone calls 9-1-1 doesn’t matter,” Boynton said. “What we have to remember is that the person could be having their worst day ever, and they just don’t know how to help themselves or the person they are calling about.”
If you live within the Ben Lomond Fire response district, consider volunteering for your local department. The BLFD requires volunteer firefighters to pass a background check and physical agility test, possess a California driver’s license, and drive a reliable vehicle. Though training is provided for eligible candidates, desirable qualifications include medical training, fire experience, military experience, heavy equipment experience, or trades experience. For more information on requirements, click here.
“It’s an extended family; we risk our lives together, work together, and have fun together all for the common good of our community,” Engineer Arndt said. “We live here, some work here, and we are here to make a positive difference in the quality of life in Ben Lomond.”