By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
For Eric Danell, there is no other job he would have enjoyed better than the one he has had at Heartland Fire and Rescue. Well, almost no other.
“Besides flying a fighter jet, I can’t think of anything else I wish I had done,” he said. Piloting loud, powerful machines seems to be Danell’s forte. Before being promoted to captain 10 years ago, he was an engineer for Heartland Fire & Rescue and drove fire engines. “It’s the best job in the department to have,” he said.
This month, Danell will retire after 31 years with Heartland Fire. “I figure it’s time to move on to the next phase,” he said. That phase will involve fishing and supporting his wife’s horse training business.
Some aspects of firefighting have changed and others have stayed the same since Danell first visited a firehouse with his brother years ago and decided to leave San Diego State University and pursue fire science at Grossmont College.
“The care for people on medical incidents has improved quite a bit,” he said. “We deliver advanced care much faster than we used to and almost all fire departments now have paramedics on their fire trucks.”
Also, the equipment for firefighting has improved, he said. Fire trucks today are stronger, faster and can pump better, but the biggest advance is the addition of computers.
“We are able to access information that we never could have in the past,” he said. Knowing the layout of a building and, more importantly, what kinds of possibly hazardous materials are on a fire site gives today’s firefighters an advantage they didn’t have when he first started, Danell said.
But, he said, firefighting’s core is still the same.
“What’s interesting that hasn’t changed with all those improvements in equipment and technology is that it still takes the same men and women to be brave enough to go into a very hazardous environment and put water on the fire,” he said. “We still have firefighters killed every day. That part hasn’t changed.”
Although Danell has fought many fires on the job, it was during a wildfire while he was off duty when he came closest to dying.
During the Cedar Fire in October 2003, Danell was off duty and traveling throughout the county to help where he could. He and another firefighter who was also off duty went to Julian to check on a retired fire chief who lived there. The wildfire headed that way and eventually reached them at 11 p.m., he said.
“[The wildfire] came in and split and came around the house so we couldn’t get out if we wanted to. We spent the whole night protecting his house.”
All they had was a small pump with two hoses connected to a water tank, but only one hose could run at a time.
“We spent all night holding it back and the one firefighter I was with actually passed out because there was so much smoke and heat,” he said. “There was one point where I had my face down in the dirt, trying to breathe and thinking to myself, ‘This was a bad choice to stay here.’”
Although the pump ran out of gas and Danell had to refill it while lit embers rained down around him, the three made it through the night and the retired fire chief’s house was the only one that survived in the area.
In a small city like La Mesa, not every call to the station is going to be as dramatic as the Cedar Fire. However, even calls that seem mundane — like tending to elderly residents who may not have family nearby or know their neighbors well enough to ask for help — are “the times you realize you can make a difference and it doesn’t take long to spend a little extra time,” Danell said. “You can’t do this job if you don’t want to help people.”
Danell was born in New York and has cousins and uncles who work as firefighters there. After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, his department raised $20,000 for a widow of a firefighter from his uncles’ department by holding fundraising drives like selling T-shirts at Oktoberfest. He went back to New York to deliver the money and attend funerals of fellow firefighters, thanks to the La Mesa community pulling together to show their support.
It is that generous spirit he will miss most from the community he served for 31 years. “La Mesa has been a great city to work for,” he said. “The people here truly like and support their police and fire. I do truly believe they appreciate what we do.”
––Write to Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.