Next generations step up to the plate as BLFD’s volunteer firefighters
When you call 9-1-1 and the Ben Lomond Fire Department (BLFD) responds to the scene, chances are that you’re being assisted by members of the same family.
Since its beginnings more than a century ago, the Department has been staffed by volunteer firefighters who call Ben Lomond home. And many of those who serve today either volunteer alongside family members or are just the latest generation in a long line of BLFD firefighters and supporters.
Aside from current Fire Chief Stacie Brownlee – whose late father, Mike Smith, was chief in the 1970s and ’80s – there are a number of BLFD volunteers with family roots that run deep. From fathers and sons, to cousins, grandfathers, and in-laws, here’s a look at just a few of your local firefighters who are keeping it all in the family.
One of the most recent volunteers to join the department is Duquan Ruff, the 19-year-old son of BLFD Engineer Steve Ruff. The father and son pair is part of a firefighting family that’s served Ben Lomond for many years.
Steve and his wife Teresa (daughter of retired Battalion Chief Ed Butler) moved to Ben Lomond in 2003, when Duquan was about 3. Steve joined BLFD in 2004 after he finished serving in the U.S. Navy. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Steve said he was a little hesitant about living in such a small community.
“It was an adjustment to go from living in a city where I looked like everyone to a small town where I was … one-of-a-kind,” he said. “Hence, my nickname on the department: ‘Token’.”
As a registered sleep technologist who works in San Jose, Steve said he never wanted to be a firefighter for a paycheck. He believes there is something different about being a volunteer and that it was his “path” in life.
“At first, I volunteered for the camaraderie, but then it quickly became a way for me to help my neighbors,” he said. “I’m serving my neighbors. I’m serving my friends. I’m serving my family.”
Now 15 years later, Steve and his family have a love for this community that continues to be passed down. Both his children grew up in the fire department and now Duquan, who attends Cabrillo College pursuing a Fire Technician degree, carries on the volunteering torch.
“I love Ben Lomond,” said Duquan, who also works in the safety and security department at 1440 Multiversity in Scotts Valley. “I want the opportunity to help the people I grew up with, to help keep everyone safe.”
Steve said he never had to encourage or convince his son to volunteer, that it’s just who the Ruff family is. And he’s pleased that his family continues to serve the community.
“I’m very proud of the man my son is becoming. He still has growth of course, but he’s on a good path,” Steve said, adding that the feeling runs through the generations. “I would say my father-in-law is the most proud, to see his grandson follow in his footsteps.”
For Duquan, having volunteer firefighters in the family definitely influenced him, as did simple childhood outings.
“Watching my Poppop (grandfather Ed Butler), and seeing my mom and Nonni (grandmother Janet Butler) support and volunteer with the department all had an impact,” he said. “Even my preschool did trips to BLFD to learn about fire prevention including when to change out smoke detector batteries and what firefighters look like with all the gear on, so we wouldn’t be afraid if they came to our house.”
And now Duquan is preparing to take on that role and be an example for future generations of BLFD volunteer firefighters.
“I’m so thankful for the opportunity to not only have lived here with all these wonderful people that make Ben Lomond what it is, but that I get to help people here,” he said. “I’m excited to serve this community, and I’m excited to begin my career.”
Perhaps some families have a firefighter “gene” being passed along through generations. If so, Hunter Anderson and his dad, John “Tex” Anderson, are shining examples of how sometimes firefighting simply runs through the veins.
“My family comes from old school East Coast fire, from the early 1900s in New Jersey and New York,” Hunter said. “So it’s cool to see that 4 or 5 generations later, we’re still pulling lines off engines.”
Hunter has been with BLFD since he was teenager. Now 24, the Firefighter/emergency medical technician is in the process of becoming an engineer for the department. In addition, he’s a rescue swimmer and boat operator for Santa Cruz County’s swiftwater rescue team – one of only about 50 in the entire state.
“My old man worked at BLFD, so I grew up at this firehouse,” he said. “Boulder Creek Fire has an internship for students from San Lorenzo Valley and I got involved with that during my junior year. I really enjoyed the dynamic of the job and got picked up by Ben Lomond when I was 18.”
According to Hunter, many of the younger firefighters from the Valley departments took part in the internship. He said most return and help with training during the internship, since they went through it as kids – much like older generations guiding the younger.
Hunter’s dad, Tex, was a firefighter/EMT with BLFD for about 15 years. He said he’d recommend that all men and women join the fire service if they’re able, and give back to the Ben Lomond community – just like he hoped his son would do.
“I did encourage Hunter,” Tex said. “It’s a great thing, and I wanted him to experience it and join the tight-knit family of BLFD.”
Though the father/son duo didn’t volunteer at the same time, Hunter works at his dad’s construction company while awaiting the next paramedic program so he can obtain his license.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to work with my dad at the fire department,” Hunter said. “But we work together daily at his company and that’s a close second.”
For Tex, the feeling is mutual. He’s proud of Hunter’s accomplishments – from his volunteerism to his schooling – and said that he’s pleased with his son’s path.
“I’m happy he gets to make those bonds and give back to the community with a killer group of people,” Tex said. “I look forward to seeing where he takes this as a career.”
It’s a love story for the books. Dan Arndt and his wife, Kelly – a retired AMR Paramedic – met as volunteers for the Boulder Creek and Zayante Fire Departments respectively. Though they took a break from volunteering to raise their family – son Dylan and daughter Gracen, a future veterinarian – Dan returned to volunteer firefighting in 2014. But this time, he joined Ben Lomond Fire.
Now Dylan, 19, is a Firefighter/EMT who responds to calls alongside his father.
“Watching my dad go on calls and hearing all the stories was a major deciding factor in getting on Ben Lomond,” said Dylan, who currently works for AMR in Hollister as an EMT and plans a future in the fire service. “It was also a factor in choosing my career path.”
Aside from being an Engineer and Public Information Officer with BLFD, Dan is semi-retired from the high-tech industry and works in Scotts Valley. He’s known Chief Brownlee since high school and said when they’d cross paths, they’d often talk about him joining the department. He said his career eventually took a new direction and in 2014 he was able to commit to the department and the community.
And he’s not at all surprised that his son is on the same path.
“Dinner conversations and social gatherings always seem to circle back to the topic of fire and EMS, so Dylan was pretty much immersed in the life,” Dan said. “His personality has always driven him to jump in and help, so it’s a natural fit for him to volunteer, as well as pursue a full-time career in the fire service/EMS.”
Dan said being a volunteer firefighter allows him to give back and do his part to ensure family, friends and neighbors feel confident help is just around the corner. The younger Arndt echoed that sentiment.
“I volunteer because of the opportunity it allows me to give back to my community while being able to further my skills and knowledge to put toward my future in the fire service,” Dylan said.
The father and son pair have responded to calls together, and while Dan said he always has some underlying fear for his son’s safety – as he does for everyone on the crew – he has faith in Dylan’s abilities.
“Knowing he has a natural aptitude for this line of work, I’m confident that when he’s out of my line of sight, he’s making smart decisions not only by instinct, but by the training he receives,” Dan said. He guides Dylan when needed, but said he enjoys “throwing him in the deep end” and letting his son figure things out.
“We’ve always had a pretty tight bond,” Dan said. “But working together in emergency situations has really shown us the synergy and like-mindedness we have.”
Cousins Matt Sanders and James Sanders were both raised in Ben Lomond, and have a number of relatives who served in the department before them. Aside from volunteering with BLFD, the pair are paid firefighters with outside departments as well.
“I originally volunteered because it was a family tradition,” said Matt, a volunteer BLFD Captain, as well as a firefighter for the NASA/Ames Fire Department at Moffett Field. “I stay because I want to give back to the organization that got me started. And I’m honored to follow in my uncles’ and father’s footsteps by serving Ben Lomond.”
His father, Jim “Stub” Sanders, as well as uncles Steve Sanders and Greg Glubka all served with the department.
After graduating from San Lorenzo High School in 1995, Matt found himself struggling with college. He eventually expressed interest in BLFD to his uncle, Steve – James’ dad – who was fire chief at the time.
“It took a couple of months before he let me join,” the 40-year-old said, adding that he’s been with BLFD since October of 1997. Matt credits Ben Lomond for his career path, saying, “without the community and fire department’s willingness to pay for classes, I wouldn’t be a professional fireman today.”
Matt – a husband, and father to son Jackson – said his fellow firefighter and younger cousin, James, is also a dedicated husband, father, firefighter, and volunteer.
“I’m very proud of him,” Matt said.
James – an engineer/paramedic with the Albany Fire Department in Alameda County for more than 12 years – is a volunteer driver/operator with BLFD.
Although his cousin had some influence on him becoming a BLFD firefighter, James said his dad, Steve, had the biggest impact on his decision.
“My dad started with BLFD in the 1970s and moved up the ranks to Chief,” James said. “He is the greatest firefighter I ever knew and was a perfect role model for me.”
The 37-year-old has been a volunteer with the department off and on for more than 10 years. He added that being a volunteer in a small town with fewer resources is a big benefit to the area and its residents.
“It’s important to give back to the community,” James said. “Small communities can use as much help as possible to be successful.”
Matt added that the department can always use additional volunteers – even if there are no familial ties. He said that being a firefighter is mentally and physically demanding, but for those interested in making a difference in Ben Lomond, it could be a perfect fit.
“We need people who will be dedicated to getting up at 3am in crappy weather for hours at a time, doing the hardest job there is for no to little pay (stipend),” Matt said. “But there’s nothing else like it.”