First Day on the Job October 15, 1968, 7:30 a.m.
I’m very nervous as I begin to merge my life with 125 years of Alameda Fire Department history. Surrounded by two shifts of guys, I see Frank at the table. He pulls out a cigar. With ritual-like purpose and great savor, he unwraps and smells it, looks with great admiration, pauses until everyone is watching and then, with the fury of a steel bear trap, takes a big bite and starts to chew. Frank looks over at a new guy that’s pretty nervous and says, “Hey kid, pour yourself a cup of coffee, grab a chair and sit down for 25 years.”
At 0800, we are introduced to calisthenics the AFD way. In full uniform, we form a circle with the lieutenant leading. Harry is noticeable, immediately behind, and partially out of sight of the officer. He had put down his cigar and was smiling and running in place without his toes ever leaving the ground, a truly amazing feat indeed.
Every day we would attend the Training Center for hose lays, tactics and strategy, ladder drill, and assorted tool training. We would visit one of the four stations, our goal being to learn, in one month, every piece of equipment on all seven rigs and two ambulances.
This, again, reminds me of an anomaly with the two Porta Powers on Trucks 1 and 2. We were to read and memorize the equipment from the training manual, learning to use them. Having come from a trade that used 40-ton Porta Powers on 100-ton earth movers, I thought to compare our two Porta Powers. From first look, they seemed exactly the same. The Fire Department Manual, however, said there was an inconsistency between them. Truck 1 had a 10-inch extension, while Truck 2 had a 9-inch. As I looked at them fully extended, you could see that Truck 1 had the numbers 1 through 10 stamped on the shaft, with the 10 barely showing as it entered the cylinder. On Truck 2’s, it numbered 1 through 9 with no 10 showing, but with another inch of travel left. When I took a ruler to each, their extensions measured exactly the same. In manufacturing, the number 10 must have been left off, which is no big deal, except to the training officer who thought he had a nugget to catch us on. This has to go down in history as the height of stupidity, someone in the far distant past that shouldn’t have been in charge of equipment made a command decision and said there was an inch difference, apparently because he couldn’t see the 10. Dumb!
Do you think I could get the training officer to correct the error? No, I was ignored as a new kid. It took me more than 10 years to personally challenge and bring about the correction. I finally won out. Traditions are good but sometimes blind us. By now Porta Powers have been replaced by the Jaws of Life and it doesn’t matter to anyone but me.
The five of us entered our training month together. The routine was to arrive at Station One by 7:30 a.m. At change of shift, we helped the regular crew clean from the previous day, then checked over the apparatus and all equipment. At 8:30 a.m., the Gamewell Alarm was tested with three rounds of three bells, then a radio check, in which Central would tone the radios, and all apparatus operators would acknowledge Central. After radio check, we gathered in the dayroom for coffee and the rundown of our day’s training. We would be picked up about 9:30 by whichever engine or truck was going to the Training Center.
At the Training Center, we would pull and connect hose, raise ladders, and mainly do hands on until 11:30, then back to Station One for lunch. At 1:00, we would go back to the Training Center for the afternoon, or to a class at one of our four stations. This accomplished many things; we met most of the men in the department while they met and were sizing up their new batch of kids.
I soon realized that I was with a large group of interesting and, in most cases, talented guys. The five of us worked hard to prove ourselves and to be accepted. The routine was often broken by an alarm; we stopped whatever we were doing and watched the crew swing into action. As we newer guys stood out of the way, that feeling that I had when I was four, sitting on my tricycle, watching Dad go by on Engine Three, came flooding back, “I want to go too.” To this day, the sound of a siren takes me back.
Our First Rescue, Alameda Training Center – Mecartney Road, 10:00 a.m.
It’s about three weeks into our training and, again, we’re raising ground ladders at the Training Center. We heard a car crash into the concrete wall that separates Mecartney Road and the training grounds. That wall that I knew so well was seven feet tall from our side but, on the other side, it was only about five feet to the roadway. As we looked toward the sound of the crash, we could see that a fast-moving car had entered the turn, glancing off the wall. I didn’t know until later that the passenger, a girl, had grabbed the wheel in hopes of stopping the car. We ran to the wall and I stepped up on the ledge which put my head above the wall. The right door was opened and we could see her fall out. The car continued on. As it passed, I could see the man inside. I looked right, and saw the girl staggering toward me; she seemed to be crying. I hurdled the wall and ran to her. She collapsed, crying, “He was trying to rape me!”
I carried her to the training tower and yelled, “Call the cops to blockade the bridge!”
I knew there was no other way off the island. While the guys comforted her, I ran back to the wall knowing he had to pass by again to make his escape. As he passed, we got a good look but had no way to apprehend him. He beat the police to the bridge, but we had the license plate number, and he was later caught. One year later, I received a summons to appear in Superior Court to testify on her behalf. The Defense Attorney was pretty smug; he had been to the scene, stood at our location, and realized that we could not see over the seven-foot wall from the ground. I was called to the stand, face to face with the assailant.
The attorney proceeded to attack. “Mr. LeMoine, your testimony says that you saw my client and could identify him.”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then, can you tell me how a man of six feet could see over a seven-foot wall?” With a slight smile, he was sure he had me.
I looked at the assailant and then to him and, with satisfaction, I answered, “Sir, from the age of seven I lived on Bay Farm Island. At least twice a week while growing up, my friends and I would climb and walk on that wall. If you had looked a little closer, you would have noticed that there is a ledge to step up on, which puts a man of six feet at least twelve inches above the wall. The roadbed on the other side is only five feet below the top of the wall. We heard the crash and ran to the wall. Knowing the ledge was there, I stepped up and was easily able to see him pass by. Because of the impact with the wall, he was still on our side of the road and maybe six feet from me. Again, as he returned and passed by, we had a second chance to see him. By then, there were five of us looking on. There is no doubt in my mind that he is that man.”
The attorney said, “No further questions. You may step down.” With a smile and a feeling of great satisfaction, I left for home and the assailant left for the penitentiary.
My Baby Boy is not Breathing! Station One, 1984, 6:00 a.m.
The call: the report of a two-year-old boy not breathing. On arrival, we enter the apartment to see a mother by the crib with a two-year-old in her arms. The father is just standing there, presumably in shock. She says, “My boy was okay an hour ago.”
He is still warm and has some color. No ambulance is near, so Captain Steckler makes a tough decision, knowing the hospital is only ten blocks away. He will drive and I will do CPR in the cab of Engine Three on the way to the hospital. I scoop up the baby and into the cab we go; I’m getting a good breath exchange as we race through the cool morning air toward the hospital. His color is holding. As we pull in front of Alameda Emergency, the nurses take him from me and move into a trauma room. My job is done in a matter of a half hour. We have gone from sleeping, to racing through town, to mouth-to-mouth, to the nurses, to nothing. What kind of a job is this? I know the doctor did everything possible for close to an hour. With tears and a look of resignation he says, “That’s all I can do,” and pronounces him dead. Lying quietly on the table, the boy looks so healthy. What could have gone wrong? Only God can answer that. We did the best we could, but it wasn’t enough. Next time we must do better.
Hey Guys! My House is on Fire! Station One, 1976, 11:00 a.m.
Our home was on Marina Drive near the east end of town. I was driving Engine One, with Bob driving Truck One. Mid-morning, we heard the still horn, the usual first sound to alert us of a call coming in. I hurried to the front room and asked Bill Simeon, the dispatcher, for the address: “3019 Marina Drive; a house fire.”
I paused in disbelief with a gasp. “That’s my house! That’s my house! Hey guys, my house is on fire!”
We broke all records leaving the station. This time I knew that I burned rubber out of the apparatus room down Encinal, left on Broadway, accelerating through Central and Santa Clara. I’m frantically thinking, what’s burning and where is my family? By this time the guys on the tailboard must have lost their footing and were holding on with just their hands, flapping in the draft of the engine as I broke all the rules. Further down Central, Truck 1 was so close I could see Bob’s face in my mirror. I thought to myself again, what’s burning? Where are my wife and two little girls?
Right turn onto Fernside, the engine was flat out as we reached Harvard. I slow to 1800 RPMs and the five speed slips smoothly into fourth and then third. I turn left two short blocks and right, onto Marina. As we pull up in front, we can see Laura and the girls standing on the lawn of our house, safe. I breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve never seen the guys move so fast. The fire turned out to be small, behind the dryer, with lots of smoke damage. I was grateful to Laura for her care of the children, and a bit chagrined about the fire. I know firsthand what it feels like to be on the other side for a change.
David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.