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Talk Humboldt - Humboldt Bay Fire Chief Sean Robertson

Fire poles and ladder trucks are quintessential to how most people think of fire stations, and Humboldt Bay Fire Station is no exception. But it turns out that Humboldt Bay Fire does much more than just firefighting. In fact, it's not even their most common service. "Our primary responses are medical, so emergency medical services are about 60% of our calls. Fires only account for about 4%," says Chief Sean Robertson.

In today's episode of Talk Humboldt with Keith & Tom, Chief Sean Robertson talks about "enhanced moments", his very first fire, and the truth about rescuing cats from trees.


Tom Jackson: [Background noise] I’m going down the stairs from the second to the first floor.

Sean Robertson: We could have taken the firepole, oh, there's the ladder truck.

Tom Jackson: Just on time. We get to hear it coming in. So where are we right now?

Sean Robertson: We are in the apparatus bay floor.

Tom Jackson: That would be where all the trucks are.

Sean Robertson: Exactly. The garage, if you like.

Tom Jackson: Hi I’m Tom Jackson, president of Cal Poly Humboldt, and I'm here again today with my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Keith Flamer, president of the College of the Redwoods. Good to see you, Keith.

Keith Flamer: Good to see you, Tom. It's a pleasure being here.

Tom Jackson:  We're here today with the Eureka Fire Department's chief, Sean Robertson. Good to see you, Chief.

Sean Robertson: Good to see you, too.

Tom Jackson: And we're in the Humboldt Bay Fire Station Number One, chief, can you talk a little bit about what the fire department does?

Sean Robertson: Our primary objective is to protect life, property, and the environment, but what we end up doing is being kind of a catch-all. Our primary responses are medical, so emergency medical services are about 60% of our calls. Fires only account for about 4%, and then others is what we call getting service calls; leaks in someone's house from a water heater, a carbon monoxide detector or a smoke alarm goes off and they need somebody to come and look at it. We do a lot of lift assists, helping people up off the floor. We do rescues, human and otherwise. I've rescued cats.

Keith Flamer: I was about to ask you….

Sean Robertson: We don't generally do that because the joke is, have you ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree? No, because cats can get up a tree, they are very capable of coming down, they just don't want to.

Tom Jackson: You mentioned earlier, we had this wonderful tour of the station house, that this is station number one. How many stations are there?

Sean Robertson: We have five stations.

Tom Jackson: And you cover what distance in these?

Sean Robertson: We cover 55 square miles. We're a consolidation of the City of Eureka Fire Department and then Humboldt Number One Fire Protection District. And so we consolidated in 2015 after trying to do it for about 60 years or more. It was very successful and it's been a huge improvement of our services to the community.

Keith Flamer: You rescued cats, you rescued the horses. Sean, what sticks into your mind as a story that you would like to share?

Sean Robertson: The challenging thing for a firefighter is you often remember the not-so-good things, and those stick out more in your mind. So the memorable good things for me are not memorable good things for someone else.

Keith Flamer: That point was well taken.

Sean Robertson: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, my first fire is very memorable. It was when I was with Arcata Fire, I was a volunteer. I got a page on my pager, I ran to the fire station and the fire was on Old Arcata Road right near Jacoby Creek School and I was on the nozzle and I got to put the fire out. Being in that environment and having to make these very quick decisions, it's just an exhilarating thing. Other things that I think about is I remember cutting a hole in the roof here in Eureka. We ventilate roofs so we cut a hole in them to let the hot gases and smoke out. That makes the conditions inside better for the crews inside trying to push on and put the fire out. I just remember finishing the work on the roof and taking a moment and looking up and seeing the stars in the sky and it's just those little reflections for me, it's just an invigorating job because you're faced with death and destruction, so you have moments of reflection on just being alive. And it's like a very enhanced moment. And then it's also enhanced by your ability to help people in an incredibly direct way.

Keith Flamer: I was trying to juxtapose what you've said about what your life as a firefighter is like.

Sean Robertson: Yeah.

Keith Flamer:  To all the shows I watch on TV about firefighting, like how realistic is that? And yeah, so is that close to what you do? Of course, I imagine all the drama there's one thing, but is it like the lifestyle is that similar?

Sean Robertson: The lifestyle and the banter, that's pretty realistic. The drama part, that doesn't happen. That’s HR nightmares.

Keith Flamer: Exactly. True, well said. So what is it like to respond to a building fire? What happens to you when you go in?

Sean Robertson: The way it starts is when you get to the scene. You start assessing the building. You're looking at the smoke, you're determining what the fire intensity is. You're thinking about where the location of it you're thinking about, how are you going to get to where the fire is to put it out. Because once you go inside, more often than not, you cannot see, you cannot hear ,because there's so much ambient noise. You have the radio. We often have chainsaws, we have the engine noise outside, and then you have to search without really being able to see or sense, to find the fire. And also we're wearing a face mask and those condense water on them. We get things falling down from the ceiling. So you are unable to see very well. Nowadays we have a thermal imaging camera that we can use to look for those images to help us get oriented to the building or look for victims. You're also needing to stay low to the ground because heat rises and you're going to get hot pretty quick if you're trying to stand up, if not get hurt. And the more experience you have, the quicker all of these take place.

I'll tell you, one of the more bizarre examples of that was we had an apartment fire here in Eureka. A crew was already inside with a line, and our assignment was to go back them up. So I followed the line inside and I found the firefighter on the end of the nozzle, and he was just sitting there, he was crouching on the ground, and so I hit him on the shoulder, and I said “What's going on?”, and I heard this voice that wasn't his that says, "I've got a gun, I'm going to kill you." There was a victim inside who was threatening us, and so the firefighter was staying still because he didn't know how to deal with this person. So again, my intuition in the few years that I'd been doing this job was I quickly assessed the threat is: okay, a person inside a smoke filled room, would they really have a gun? If they did have a gun, would they know where I am? And if they knew where I am, would they be able to kill me like they said? So a quick risk assessment and my answers to all of those were 'no'. So I just kind of grabbed where I thought that person's lap was, where they may be holding a gun and found there their wrists. They didn't have a gun in it. And we got that person out, they were naked, they didn't have anything with them. But that's an example of how invigorating it is and how challenging it can be. What other jobs can you have in life where your intuition is challenged in that way?

Tom Jackson: Thanks again.

Keith Flamer: Thank you, Sean.

Dr. Tom Jackson, Jr. is the President of Cal Poly Humboldt. A first-generation college graduate, Jackson is also a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, Army National Guard, Texas State Guard, and Indiana Guard Reserve. He holds an Ed.D in Educational Leadership from the University of La Verne.
Dr. Keith Snow-Flamer has been President of the College of the Redwoods since 2015. Dr. Snow-Flamer holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Gonzaga University.