A small number of men and women residing in San Mateo County live in daily readiness to take on dangerous and often life-saving assignments in the interest of public safety in their community. In return, they receive pay that is right next to nothing when compared with compensation earned by counterparts doing the same job in the same county – many of whom pull down salaries and benefits that far exceed $100,000 a year.
That's not to say that the 16 firefighters who serve in the Kings Mountain Volunteer Fire Brigade are scraping by. They have day jobs in medicine, surveying, engineering and corporate management.
But they are tethered to their community in a way that career firefighters – with homes in distant counties, paid time off and a schedule of two days on and four days off – are not. In the case of a fire or other significant emergency, Kings Mountain volunteers will leave work and head back to their community, brigade Chief Jim Sullivan notes.
Volunteer agencies are governed by the same standards that govern the operations of publicly funded firefighting agencies, Sullivan says. A board of directors reviews the brigade chief's performance and brigade operations, while a firefighting official in San Mateo County supervises the firefighters, he adds.
Brigade firefighters have the same training and skills as paid firefighters, Sullivan says. The training regimen includes structure and wildland firefighting, medical aid, rescue, automobile stabilization and extrication, and the handling of hazardous materials people drive to the area from the valleys below to dump chemicals, he notes.
The current staff of firefighters includes a physician, a nurse practitioner and eight or nine people trained as emergency medical technicians, according to Sullivan.
Kings Mountain firefighters, when they're not at home, have the community's welfare in the back of their minds, Assistant Chief Matt King says. When they are at home after a workday, the question of whether to have something alcoholic to help unwind is an important one. "You make that choice when you're at home, to have that drink and put yourself out of service," he says.
"Even one sip" is enough to require that you stand down, Sullivan says. You have a beer, you turn your pager off, he says. "It's not safe to be operating any emergency or public safety equipment if you're under the influence."
New, not second-hand
The fire brigade's area of service covers state Highway 35 (Skyline Boulevard) between the intersections of state highways 92 in San Mateo and 84 in Woodside, and 3 to 5 miles down the east and west sides of the coastal ridge, according to Sullivan.
The Kings Mountain brigade is equipped with a rescue vehicle, a water tender a truck with a 3,000-gallon water tank on the back and two fire engines, including one engine with a smaller aspect so as to negotiate tighter spaces when fighting wildfires, Sullivan says. The brigade is anticipating the arrival of a new engine at a cost of $650,000, he said.
Seventy-five percent of U.S. firefighting agencies are volunteer, though volunteer agencies are not as common on the West Coast, Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District told The Almanac. Though many of these agencies depend on second-hand equipment, the Kings Mountain brigade does not. It buys new equipment, funded principally with tens of thousands of dollars in annual proceeds from the Kings Mountain Art Fair (held on the Labor Day weekend), Sullivan says.
New equipment was not as critical as local knowledge in fighting the Skeggs fire in the hills above Woodside in early September 2017. A spotter plane from the California Department of Forestry and Fire saw smoke in a wooded area after a series of lightning strikes. Local firefighters surrounded the area to observe the fire overnight, Chief Dan Ghiorso of the Woodside Fire Protection District said at the time.
At dawn, six firefighters from the Kings Mountain brigade began hiking in, equipped with chain saws and a familiarity with the area that enabled them to find and fight the fire, according to Ari Delay, fire chief with the volunteer La Honda Fire Brigade. "Local knowledge is invaluable," he adds.
With participation from the Woodside district, state and Marin County firefighters, and prison inmate crews from Northern California and with the benefit of extremely light winds the fire was out in three days. Limited access to the fire extended its duration, Sullivan explains, adding that it would have been out in a hour or so had it occurred along a road.
The brigade's routines have changed somewhat from what they were 10 to 15 years ago, when it was not uncommon on warm sunny weekends for EMTs to respond to motorcycle accidents along Skyline Boulevard, Sullivan says. With its long sweeping curves, sparse traffic and not a single stop sign, Skyline is a race track in all but name.
Today, with advances in vehicle traction control and with aggressive patrolling by law enforcement, motorcycle accidents "have decreased precipitously. ... It's not nearly as common," Sullivan says.
Mountain bike accidents are common, he says, with injuries ranging from not serious to fatal.
The brigade crew possesses at least one skill that may not be common in publicly funded firefighting agencies in the valleys below: adeptness at transporting water to the scene of a fire in a water tender. Driving a tender is tricky, as it is subject to rollovers as the water sways despite devices inside the tank to stabilize it. Because of its uncommon expertise, the Kings Mountain group trains tender drivers in other fire districts, Assistant Chief Hank Stern says.
La Honda Fire Brigade Chief Delay showed this reporter a video taken at the San Bruno gas-main fire in 2010 in which a Kings Mountain crew deployed its water tender to douse a raging house fire after the hydrants had gone dry.
"There are not many fire districts in the Bay Area that have the skill set to do that," Stern says of the tender crew's actions.
Management skills are another challenge for a volunteer fire brigade in that the people being managed are volunteers. Legally, they are employees with the same workplace protections as career firefighters, Sullivan says, but they're unpaid.
"It is much more of an art ... to get people to move in a certain direction," Delay notes. There are no pay incentives at $8 to $12 a call for a couple of hundred calls a year, he says.
Help is not hard to find in an emergency, Sullivan says, but the "true hero volunteers are the ones that commit to take the time to take the training."
"Lots of able-bodied people would volunteer, but would they be useful?" he adds.
Recruiting, too, is an art. New residents may not realize that a neighbor is also a volunteer firefighter. "Usually we don't ask," Assistant Chief King says. "This is a lot to take on. There are people who have a problem saying no."
Firefighters could be on duty for minutes or hours or days. "It's a big sacrifice," Assistant Chief Stern says.
Delay notes that he has occasionally worked all night as a first-responder, taken a shower and headed off to his day job.
Kings Mountain resident and volunteer firefighter Sean Fender, 27, is a fitness instructor at Google and has been a community resident for a year and a half. He is also a Woodside fire district cadet. The one-year cadet program is an introduction to the firefighting life, day-in and day-out, Chief Ghiorso says.
Fender said he is working toward a career in firefighting, including becoming a paramedic. He took a break from training at the brigade station at 13889 Skyline Blvd. to comment on his volunteer service. "I liked the idea of learning the skills and being of use to the community," he explains. Firefighting "kind of feels more like a calling than anything else."
As first-responders in a small community, volunteer firefighters who are also residents encounter a situation that career firefighters may not see much: familiarity with residents. "Usually when we respond, that's awkward because they know us," Sullivan says. "It's terrible to lose a family member, maybe a small child, and to have one of the responders be your neighbor. You now become, in their mind, affiliated with that tragic event. That's where it's difficult."
But such situations do not always end in alienation, Sullivan adds. "In many cases, it's brought the community members together more."