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Published February 22, 2017
Lafayette firefighters ignore local politics, quietly do their jobs
ConFire Battalion Chief Lou Manzo, who oversees the Lafayette companies. Photo Nick Marnell

Through all of the drama of Lafayette's recent unhappiness with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, the failed Fire Station 46 venture and the torpid pace of the Fire Station 16 rebuild, the firefighters of Lafayette fire stations 15 and 17 stand fast, chugging along under the radar, protecting 25,000 lives and billions of dollars of residential and commercial property in the city.
"This is a quiet community, with a potential for dangerous wildfires," said Capt. Shane Kelly of Burton Valley's Station 17. The station is usually the least busy in the district, averaging 50 runs each month.
Part of the reason for low call volume in the city is due to demographics, said Battalion Chief Lou Manzo, whose batillion includes Lafayette. "It's a nicer area, people take good care of themselves and use 911 less frequently than other areas in the district."
But that does not mean the district provides less coverage. "You need us here. Firefighters are needed in all locations," said firefighter Andrey Obutkob. Fire Chief Jeff Carman has repeatedly said that the Lafayette area causes him the most concern for property loss in the district, and the stations are always fully staffed.
Still, the Burton Valley station does not lead the list of preferred stations to which the firefighters ask to be assigned. "As soon as I can, I'll bid on a busier position," Obutkob said.
Nor does management prefer to assign new firefighters to such a low-volume station. "We're not putting a new guy there," Manzo said. "Besides, the young guys want more action." Kelly, who has also bid out of Station 17 for a busier station, explained that new firefighters need a consistent crew, and a mentor, not to work with someone who is trying to escape the station. "Some things you can teach, but you really need the hands-on experience," he said.
A more hectic vibe defines Station 15 on Mt. Diablo Boulevard. On cue, the second that Capt. Gary Hern sat down to talk, the red light went off inside the station and his crew rushed off to a medical emergency. Station 15 runs an average of 150 calls per month, a quicker pace but nowhere near the action of Concord Station 6, ConFire's busiest station, which runs 20 calls per day.
The captain has worked at Station 15 since 2013. "For years I was coming home after running fires all day and night," said Hern, a leader who gives the impression that he knows every single thing going on in his fire station. "As much as I loved it, it was affecting my family life. Now, I don't need to run 20 calls a day. I'll go back to Station 6 for a day or two, but that's it."
Hern enjoys the opportunities that a slower operation provides him. "I like the mentoring. It keeps me up to date too," he said. That day, Hern workswith probationary firefighter Brian George, a young man bursting with the DNA of a firefighter: His brother is a firefighter, his dad was a battalion chief, his mother a nurse.
"We get a few young guys who will work here, but most of them want to run fires. Also, as you get promoted, you want to be at a busier house for the experience," Hern said.
Not that the Lafayette stations are never busy. Kelly said that the Burton Valley crews went on 15 calls in two days in early January during the violent rainstorms. "Trees falling into houses, falling power lines," he said. Hern counted 11 calls on Feb. 3, and nine calls two days later, five of them during the Super Bowl. "We taped it," he said.
Help is on the way. ConFire expects to reopen Fire Station 16 early next year, as the district awaits a decision from the city's Design Review Commission at the end of February before it can bid out the project. "I'll feel more comfortable when 16 opens. You'll get an engine company with a paramedic, and that's what you deserve," Manzo promised western Lafayette residents.

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