Meet the people behind the wheels of San Diego's lifesaving vehicles
By Carol Holland Lifshitz / Photos by Rob Hammer
By squad car, fire truck or helicopter, here they come to save the day. (The night, too.)
Public safety is both career and mission for San Diego’s first responders. Police officers, lifeguards and bomb squads – they’re ready to rush in, often in badass vehicles, to protect and serve.
Here’s the 4-1-1 on who’s responding to 9-1-1 – and what they’re driving when they arrive on the scene of the crime, chemical spill or other emergency in America’s Finest.
San Diego Bomb Squad commander John Wood’s most exciting mission was also the most infamous.
“We worked at the Escondido bomb house – the bomb factory,” he says. “Our truck was able to help us get everything off it and have it in one place, so we didn’t have to keep going back and forth to get equipment.”
This type of convenience is a crucial safety feature, since, as part of the San Diego Fire Department, Wood’s 15-person unit responds to 200 calls for active bomb threats, strange sounds and suspicious packages each year.
The vehicle, which looks like a fire engine without water, holds robots, x-ray machines, fiber-optic cameras and a mobile lab. Its four-door design accommodates brave first-responders, not to mention body armor and bomb suits. Wood says it’s the perfect tool.
“It gives us plenty of space for all of our gear. We have a ton of equipment that comes on the truck, which allows us to handle any incident off that rig.”
When Chula Vista Police lieutenant Phil Collum isn’t patrolling his South Bay turf in a unmarked Ford Crown Victoria, he’s managing CVPD’s über-marked, state-of-the-art crime-stopper.
“It’s a mini police station on wheels,” says Collum of his new baby, a 40-foot, custom-built Freightliner truck, upgraded to become a Mobile Command Vehicle. “It’s not a rescue vehicle per se, but it’s designed to help manage and support incidents that might need rescuing.”
Used in major investigations and large-scale events, this bad boy is a cutting-edge communications hub, sporting satellite connectivity, on-board video conferencing and an eight-seat conference room.
“If an earthquake happened, this truck would be rolled out to be the centerpiece of our emergency response,” Collum says. “But it’s not just super big events like an earthquake. It can also be SWAT situations at residences or other facilities where there are multiple things going on that require on-hand/on-site management. This is designed for bigger things.”
No need to call the police. If it’s Collum’s squad – they’re already here.
On the job for nine years, Ashley Marino has been a lifeguard since she turned 19. She’s a certified first aid responder trained in cliff-rescue response, scuba diving, swift water rescue and peaceful (non-weapon) law enforcement.
Marino navigates the sand in a four-wheel drive Toyota Tacoma, which facilitates patrols, transports guards and carries trauma packs, oxygen tanks, backboards (for victim stabilization), buoys, diving gear, climbing rope (for rescues at Sunset Cliffs and Black’s Beach) and an enormous rescue board. It also has lights and sirens and a loud speaker, allowing the guards to communicate with pedestrians outside the truck.
Marino’s domain, Mission Beach, saw more than 100 people needing lifeguard assistance on a typical Saturday this summer, mostly due to inexperienced swimmers and riptides. Without her vehicle, some of these rescues could have ended differently.
“Last summer, we had a mass rescue,” Marino says. “There were over 10 people in the rip currents. If we hadn’t had our truck, we wouldn’t have gotten there as fast, and we wouldn’t be able to get people’s attention to let them know there was a rescue in progress.”
Firefighter Kyle Smith is also a paramedic and an EMT (emergency medical technician), which makes sense because 80 percent of the calls he responds to are in response to medical emergencies, not fires.
Often first on the scene, Smith and his colleagues use the equipment on their truck – jaws of life, chainsaws and a 10-story ladder – to rescue victims and stabilize those in need until ambulances arrive.
And when there’s smoke, Smith answers the call with up to 100 lbs. of gear on his back, saving lives (often up several flights of stairs) while carrying a breathing tank, sledgehammer and heavy-duty hose—even when he’s hungry.
One thing the fire truck doesn’t have is a food source.
“We could all just be starving, ready to eat this great meal when we haven’t eaten all afternoon,” Smith says. “Inevitably, right when you sit down to eat, the bells go off for a call, and everybody forgets about dinner and runs out to the rig.”
Maybe they’ll hit a drive-thru on the ride back to the station.
When Captain Eric Connell is dispatched in response to a fire, his primary objective is to provide aerial assistance to firefighters on the ground, warning them of escalating dangers and executing massive water drops.
When the smoke clears, he’s back in the air, flying to the scene of motor vehicle accidents and other emergencies, where he lowers paramedics and then hoists them and injured victims for the flight to the hospital. One such mission earned him and his partners Tom Stephenson and Steve Vandewall a medal of valor from the city when they rescued an East County woman who fell asleep at the wheel, drove off a cliff and fell 700 feet.
“The only way they found her was because of a hubcap,” Connell says. “She had been there 18 hours. When we got there, we knew we had to do it right now. We didn’t have a night program, we didn’t have night-vision goggles. She was not accessible by foot. She certainly would not have survived if we hadn’t had the helicopter there.”
One of the San Diego Fire Department’s specialty units, the Hazardous Materials Team, responds to chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear dangers.
“Our main objective is public safety,” says Hazmat captain Robert Logan. “Generally, we’re going to be called out because something is endangering workers, the public, the environment.”
Logan’s Hazardous Response Engine (HRE) carries an extensive library for researching chemicals, specialized tools to stop leaks and, of course, protective suits. But contrary to popular belief, the Hazmat team isn’t out there with buckets and mops.
“We don’t clean up materials, we mitigate dangerous and hazardous situations,” Logan says. “So if there’s a tanker that flipped on the freeway, we’ll go through several procedures to climb up on it, drill through it and have the gasoline pumped out to a safe place.”
This means his vehicle must be ready for the toughest of jobs. As Logan puts it, “We go to the worst of the worst.”