Volunteer Fire Force: A Proud Tradition in Santa Clara, California

Kent Clerk was celebrating his birthday June 17 when his pager went off. Dispatchers were reporting a two-alarm residential fire on Georgetown Place in Santa Clara.

Clerk, a 57-year-old battalion chief with the Santa Clara Fire Department's Volunteer-Reserves Unit, left a house full of people to respond to the call. As the senior member of the volunteer force that night, Clerk directed his firefighters in assisting the full-time paid professionals on the scene.

During the past 150 years, 2,995 men and women have served as volunteer firefighters in Santa Clara. In fact, they were the only firefighters in town for the first 94 years -- from 1855 to 1949, when Santa Clara hired six full-time professionals.

Today, the volunteer unit supports the 200 full-time paid professionals who staff the city's 10 fire stations. The volunteers train, attend drills, do station work, staff community and fire prevention activities, and respond to fires and other emergencies.

The city council recognized the division's 150 years of uninterrupted service by declaring August as ''Volunteer/Reserve Firefighter Recognition Month.''

''The volunteer reserves are an excellent supplemental force when we get emergencies that require us to provide additional staffing,'' said Deputy Fire Chief Gene Sawyer. ''They are also a vestige of our past, and we value our past a great deal in Santa Clara.''

Santa Clara's is one of the few remaining city fire departments in the state with an active volunteer reserves unit. ''In California you don't find many urban fire volunteer groups anymore,'' Sawyer said. ''On the East Coast there are a lot of reserves in cities of our size.''

Santa Clara County's fire department has a program that draws volunteers from a larger geographic area.

Volunteers must be 18 years old and city residents. The volunteer force is organized into six companies: the Columbia Engine Company, Hook and Ladder Company, Hose Brigade, Tanners Hose Company, Hope Hose Company and Mission Hose Company. Each company has a captain and a lieutenant, and eight volunteer firefighters.

Some of the volunteers join to gain skills and experience to become paid professionals. Most, however, take time away from their jobs and families to serve the community. Many volunteer to work, for example, on the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Recruitment is usually limited to a table at the annual community open house at City Hall or banners at firehouses, Sawyer said.

Training, fire safety equipment and pagers are provided to the volunteers by the fire department. The paid fire staff conducts the training.

Volunteers keep their safety equipment in their vehicles, which they use to respond to fire. The volunteer reserves respond, on average, to two or three fire calls a year.

At fires, the reservists get their orders from the paid staff, and duties generally include cleanup and replacing equipment on engines and trucks.

''Usually they don't get in on the initial fire attack because our arriving units get there in under three minutes,'' Sawyer said. ''For a large event, or prolonged attack, they will get on a hose line.''

Clerk is the oldest reserve firefighter. The longest serving reserve is Battalion Chief Henry Machens, with more than 25 years. The division's third battalion chief, William Chaves, has almost 15 years of service.

Clerk joined almost 18 years ago. In part, he said, he craved the excitement he experienced while serving on river boats during the Vietnam War.

''I got to be about 38 and had one of those mid-life crises,'' said Clerk, who is manager of antennae products for a Morgan Hill company. ''I'm an adrenaline junkie. There's something wrong with people who rush into burning buildings when others are running out.''

There have been no serious injuries to the reserve firefighters. But, the danger is always there.

The most harrowing moment in Clerk's volunteer fire career came in 1996 when he responded to a report of a gas leak at an apartment building on Homestead Road in Santa Clara.

''I was standing outside when it blew up. It blew me to the ground,'' Clerk said. ''It made my jaw go sideways and I cracked two teeth.''

Chaves, who works in the solar division of the city's water department, said he enjoys the comradeship of the fire service, particularly among the volunteers.

''We've meshed really well. There's a tremendous amount of support,'' he said. ''For any kind of major incident, there are more than 40 of us who can respond. For the most part, we're all right here.''

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED

For more information on the Santa Clara Fire Department Volunteer-Reserves, go to (http://www.ci.santa-clara.ca.us) www.ci.santa-clara.ca.us. Applications can be picked up at the department's headquarters at 777 Benton St. or at any fire station in Santa Clara. Applications are accepted throughout the year. The testing process is conducted during May and October; applications should be submitted by the end of April and September for those examinations. The testing process includes a physical ability exam, an oral exam and a background evaluation.

Distributed by the Associated Press

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