Hammond Ranch Fire Company in Siskiyou County
By Gary VanDeWalker
Call to ActionJune 2015
By Gary Vandewalker
Photos: Taryn Burkleo
Little boys dream of being policemen and firemen. Dave Jenkins marvels at his opportunity to be both. “I grew up in a family where red lights and sirens are in our DNA,” Jenkins says. A 32-year veteran of the San Jose Police Department, his move to Siskiyou County in 2004 brought him the experience of joining the Hammond Ranch Fire Department and becoming a firefighter as well as a mentor to a new generation of public servants.
The Hammond Ranch Fire Station rests among the rolling hills on a back road of south Siskiyou County. The idyllic scene of pine trees and meandering deer stand in contrast to the sound of sirens and the roar of red engines coming to life. “There are two types of volunteers at our station: Those from the community who serve here to give back, and students from the College of Siskiyous looking to make firefighting their career,” Jenkins says.
Two years after joining the department, Jenkins is fire chief. This distinction is more than one of serving on fires, it is as a coach and teacher preparing students for their future. “Our crew has six sleepers, who live at the station,” Jenkins says. “These are all students in the fire science,
paramedic and EMT programs at the nearby college. Each sleeper has a tenure of two years after which they will be fully trained and able to serve in Anytown, USA.”
Every sleeper goes through an intensive interview before serving here. The program gives them the tools to embrace firefighting as a career, developing their character, work ethic and ability to get along with others, all while living together in a cramped space. “I ask each firefighter being interviewed what their Plan B is if firefighting doesn’t work out,” Jenkins says. “I don’t want them to have an alternative plan. Firefighters need to see that failure is not an option.”
The chief ’s job is like a football coach. The first year is like having junior varsity players, working to their varsity year. The job market is tough, with city departments receiving up to 4,500 applicants for 30 jobs. Others find a career with Cal Fire, which begins as seasonal work, opening up after a few seasons to full-time employment. The Hammond Ranch Department has a 98 percent success rate in trainees finding a career path.
The job of firefighter is diverse. For the Hammond Ranch Company, 70 percent of calls are medical. Each person is a trained first responder in medical procedures. Many calls are car accidents on the Interstate 5 corridor, with a share of big rig fires and rollovers. “We meet people in their darkest hours,” Jenkins says. “People are vulnerable and we need to know how to show compassion.”
Rural firefighting has challenges. There are no fire hydrants, so trucks carry 4,000 gallons of water. Each department in the county provides mutual assistance to others, bringing a high level of teamwork and camaraderie among the firefighters. Each time the radio squelches and the tone of a call reverberates throughout the building, some challenge is waiting minutes away. Each firefighter becomes a mechanic, a plumber and a critical thinker, as well as a medic.
There is a team spirit among firefighters. Jenkins and his company never see themselves as solo performers. Together they serve their community. During the week they respond to homes where someone has fallen and just needs help getting up. During the winter, they shovel snow from roofs. They change light bulbs on poles in church parking lots. Recent flooding found them helping evacuate a local convalescent home.
Jenkins sits at the dining table, in the kitchen where the sleepers prepare their meals, which they pay for themselves. A board covers the wall with patches from dozens of fire crews who share their passion. The chief thinks deeply about their mission. “Firefighters are so much more than people who fight fires,” Jenkins says. “Here are tomorrow’s citizens. I work with those who will be baseball coaches, Boy Scout leaders and Sunday school teachers. We are those who live a life of paying back to our community in so many ways.”