Editor: The following article by Matthew Wood is part of a continuing series in the OB Rag to place faces on our public servants who work for the residents and businesses of Ocean Beach.
By Matthew Wood
Growing up in the Ocean Beach area, Ryan Ybarra had a dream in life: To become a fire fighter at the OB Fire House No. 15. He waited for his opportunity, even enduring a hellacious commute from a job at a fire department the Los Angeles area back to his wife and kids in OB.
Finally, about two years ago, a position opened up at the OB station on Voltaire and Ebers and Ybarra grabbed it. Didn’t matter to him that he lost the seniority he had built up. Or that he had to go through training and the department’s probation program. He knew he was home.
“And I’ll probably finish here,” he said with a smile. “As a kid, I always wanted to work in OB. That commute (from L.A.) just about killed me. But it was definitely worth it.”
Ybarra is an engineer on the 12-man crew at OB fire house. The guys were nice enough to give me access to their daily routine, and even ride along in the fire truck to their daily workout regimen.
Here’s a bit about how it works:
The group that is divided into three divisions – A, B and C. They work on teams of four for 12-hour shifts starting and ending at 8 a.m. On an average month, each member of the crew works 10 shifts, averaging a 56-hour work week.
Each member of the team has a specific role. The captain is the leader of the group and makes most of the executive decisions. There is also a paramedic, a fire fighter specialist and an engineer – Ybarra’s role – who handles any technical issues and makes sure everything is working properly.
“My job is I gotta get them there safely and maintain the equipment,” Ybarra said.
Joe Diko, the division’s captain, said the crew gets around five or six calls a day, taking them to anywhere in OB proper. It keeps them busy, but not nearly as busy as other fire houses in the city.
“There are stations that get 15-16 calls a day,” Diko said. “They’re not getting a lot of sleep.”
He and Todd Barry, the fire fighter of the crew, both worked at the City Heights house, an area where there was no shortage of action. “A couple years was all I could take.”
A typical day starts with the crew exchange at 8 a.m., followed by a thorough house cleaning. Then they’re off to the beach for a mandatory exercise program. After that, it’s time to think about food, as the crews do all of the shopping and preparing of their meals. The afternoon hours are filled with training and fire inspections. The men get the evenings to themselves, until the inevitable calls start coming in.
“It never fails. The second we sit down for food, there’s a call,” Barry said. “It’s like, is there a hidden camera here? We’re used to that, but we still complain.”
A vast majority of the calls are medical – more than 80 percent, Diko estimates. Sometimes an issue is not what it seems, like the recent late-night call the crew got about a potential plastic fire in the neighborhood.
“Turns out it was a skunk. We get that a lot,” Barry said.
But things can escalate in a hurry. They recently went to a call about a man who was not responsive on the sidewalk on Santa Monica Avenue. When they arrived, it was clearly a suicide situation. “Gunshot to the head,” Bary said. “The gun was still right there.”
Each member of the team deals with the tragedies in their own way, but they all rely heavily on the rest of the house.
“That stuff just sucks. It’s in your mind forever,” Diko said. “But the tight-knitness and camaraderie gets us through. We lean on each other.”
For Ybarra, it can be even tougher as a native to the area when he has to deal with people he’s known for years.
“Sometimes it’s too close to home, when you have to help someone you know. But I think I’d rather be close if there are problems rather than far away.”
He has seen a lot of people pass through the community, but not a whole lot of change. The biggest thing, he says, is the attitude of some of the younger, more transient residents.
“I see a lot more of the younger people who are homeless by choice. They have a cell phone, they go to the library with a computer, and they’re living in their van. Back in the ‘70s, you would see a lot of Vietnam veterans who didn’t really have a choice. Now they do, and this is it.”
He says he has definitely seen gentrification kick in, much of it coming from business owners getting fed up with what he calls the “aggressive panhandling.” The guys know many of the homeless people by name, and can even tell who is involved just from the location of the call.
“It gets frustrating for us because we want to help. But it’s the same people. They tend to take advantage of the system.”
But the calls on the other end aren’t all bad. The crew has delivered multiple babies, and one near miss. Diko recalls a recent incident where they were sent to the home of a pregnant woman. When they got there, the dirty work had already been done. The mother was alone in the house – at least, until she did the delivery herself.
“She was standing there with the baby, the cord still attached. She said she wanted to do it in the ocean, but it was too cold.”
So the crew goes about their business and wait for the next calls, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You can go from absolutely idle to the most intense situation in your life,” Ybarra said. “That’s what we do. I would go completely insane if I was somewhere with no calls. And you better like the guys you work with.”
“You see some really cool things, and then some horrific, sad scenes. There’s a big swing in there. It’s exciting that way. We’re known as a top-notch crew. I don’t like to toot our own horn, but these guys deserve it.”
Barry echoes the sentiments of all the men I talked to at the house when he says he’d rather be out on a call, even with the threat of injury or death to himself and others.
“I just like fighting fires. It’s my passion.”