Chapter 3


More About Topanga

Of course, Mike had movie-star good looks. At the time, he was collecting royalties from an underarm deodorant commercial he had appeared in (I believe the royalties were two or three times his fire department salary that year). He was single and living in an apartment building near LAX. The building was occupied mostly by female flight attendants.

Being young and a little impetuous, Mike would come to work and talk about his off-duty romantic adventures. We worked with a couple of grumpy old men who listened intently to Mike's stories but badmouthed him behind his back. It was clear to me that they were just jealous. What I cared about was how well he did his job, and he did his job very well.

Mike always looked sharp; he kept his uniforms clean and neat and his grooming was impeccable. He was very diligent about his patrol duties. Even on very hot days he would spend most of the day on patrol. He kept good records and worked well with property owners (especially the ladies) to clean up fire hazards.

Mike and I also shared an interest in cars. At one point while we worked together, he bought a chopped and channeled, fenderless '34 Ford coupe. Later, he drove an Italian deTomaso Pantera coupe. My interest in cars had taken a back seat to education and I was driving a beat-up '57 VW, but I looked forward to the day when I could get behind the wheel of something special. Mike Stoker and I forged a friendship that survives to this day, and I've always been pleased to see him attain and enjoy extraordinary personal and financial success.

I could write a whole book about my experiences in Topanga Canyon (including catching Mama Cass swimming in the nude at Barry McGuire's house (you don't want to hear about it), rescuing Tisha Sterling's horse (she's Ann Sothern's daughter), and giving a ticket to Bob Denver (Gilligan) for vandalism). Some of the most vivid memories, however, involve rescues and brushfires. Topanga Canyon Boulevard twists and turns through 12 miles between the San Fernando Valley and the Pacific Ocean. In the summer, tens of thousands of cars traverse the two-lane road going to and returning from the beach. Lots of them crash and/or leave the road and careen to the bottom of the canyon. Our job was to extricate people from those crashes (before there was a "Jaws of Life") and package them for transport in an ambulance.

Fire station 69 was the only government facility in Topanga that was staffed 24 hours a day. People would come there for first aid (bees stings, skinned knees, broken toes, etc.), for advice on property purchases ("When was the last time a fire burned through that area?"), and family matters (everything from a frustrated mother wanting us to scold her delinquent son to a squabbling newlywed couple who wanted us to settle their argument). In a serious medical emergency, we were all that stood between life and death in many cases -- and we were terribly limited in what we could do. The following story was written a few years ago but never published. It may offer some perspective on how things were and why the advent of paramedics was so important.

"I was the Captain at Fire Station 69, and we got a call reporting a woman with breathing difficulty. A young firefighter and I jumped into a patrol pickup truck - along with a Lyt-Port resuscitator and a first aid kit - and raced up the canyon to the narrow, winding road where the woman and her family lived. After parking our rig, we scrambled up the 50 to 60 steps from the roadway to the little house perched on the side of the canyon.

"The woman was in her thirties, she had a history of asthma, and she was struggling valiantly to breathe when we got there. As my partner set up the oxygen, I stepped to the phone and called our dispatcher. It was a 20-minute response for the ambulance and I wanted to make sure it was rolling.

"The woman's name was Marjorie. At first, the oxygen seemed to help. But then she lost consciousness, and her breaths became sporadic. My partner and I were among the first people on the West Coast trained in CPR, but we were both praying we wouldn't have to use it on Marjorie. Over the sound of the oxygen flowing, and the sound of her husband trying to calm their two little girls, we strained our ears for the sound of an ambulance siren coming up the canyon.

"In those days, we weren't allowed to carry stethoscopes or blood pressure cuffs. But our CPR training had taught us to check the carotid pulse. When Marjorie's skin color began to change, I felt for a pulse and it wasn't there. We started CPR about the time we heard the ambulance coming up the canyon.

"The next several minutes were a blur. There was no chance of getting the gurney up those steps, or continuing CPR while going down the steps. In a frantic scramble of arms and legs, we picked up Marjorie and raced down the stairs with her to the ambulance. It was almost a free fall, and every muscle of our bodies was fighting to get down those stairs as fast as possible without falling or dropping our patient. I don't remember doing it, but somewhere during that downhill sprint, I twisted my ankle so badly that I spent the next two weeks on crutches.

"In the ambulance, we resumed CPR. Already, my lips felt swollen, and my partner was sweating profusely as he did chest compressions and shouted out a breathless cadence.

"The ambulance was an International Travel-All with a V-8 engine and automatic transmission. The driver had left the lights on and the engine running - but the engine had died. I remember the interior overhead lights dimming as the driver engaged the starter. I remember the sickening sound of the engine turning a slow revolution-and-a-half before it pulled the lights down even dimmer.

"'One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and…,' my partner was counting as the driver engaged the starter again. Same result. About that time, I got my first taste of another person's stomach secretions. We stopped CPR momentarily, turned the patient on her side, and tried to scoop the vomit out of her mouth. I remember shouting to the ambulance crew that we had jumper cables in our truck.

"I remember how I felt as I breathed into the woman's mouth again. A wave of nausea surged from the pit of my stomach to the tip of my head. I fought it back by concentrating on the fact that we were all that stood between life and death for a young wife and mother. The young firefighter offered to switch positions. I turned him down, and then caught myself wishing I hadn't.

"Because of the narrow road, the ambulance guys had to drive the patrol truck up the road to a wide spot, turn it around, and bring it back nose-to-nose with the ambulance. We continued CPR, and it seemed an eternity before the driver got back in and engaged the starter again. Same result. I guessed that the problem was the starter, not the battery.

"You can probably understand why I remember that awful night 25 years ago. Another ambulance was dispatched - arrival time: 45 minutes. A Deputy Sheriff arrived at the scene and sized it up pretty quickly. He knew a physician who lived in the canyon. He went to his home and then delivered the doctor to our location, where he pronounced Marjorie dead. For the fifteen minutes or so before the doctor pronounced her, we felt her skin temperature turn from warm to cool to clammy.

"About five years after that terrible night in Topanga Canyon, I found myself in a classroom at Harbor General Hospital in L.A. I was a chief officer by then, and some of my firefighters were learning about wonderful new tools and procedures and medications, and we were all learning how to use them. As I held a defibrillator in my hands for the first time, I thought about Marjorie. As I learned all about endotracheal tubes and esophageal obturators, I thought about Marjorie's desperate and losing battle to breathe. As I learned about bronchodilators and other medications, I realized that with the advances of those five years, we could have given that young woman the opportunity to watch her daughters grow up.

"Marjorie's death changed my life, and it shaped my career. I will never be able to rest as long as people can die in North America for the lack of quality emergency medical services."

The book about my experiences in Topanga, if it ever gets written, also will try to paint a word picture of the phenomenon of California brush fires. There were lots of little ones and a few big ones while I was stationed at Topanga. On one occasion, I misjudged a situation and nearly lost my entire crew. In 1994, I wrote about that incident in my "Command Post" column for Rescue Magazine. It was called "Surfing with the Devil":

"Watching TV reports of the recent fires in Southern California produced a flood of memories for me. Especially when a fire jumped a ridge on the edge of the San Fernando Valley and raced through Topanga Canyon toward the ocean.

"Twenty-four years earlier, I was the fire captain on duty at Station 69 in Topanga Canyon. The Santa Anas were blowing, and the air was pungent with the fragrance of native vegetation as it protects itself against the hot, dry winds. Our fire company consisted of five people, a pumper and two small patrol trucks.

"We all knew the weather conditions were ripe for a fire, so early in the day we deployed both patrol units. We roamed the public roads throughout our 100-square mile area, making ourselves visible, scaring off would-be arsonists and watching for smoke.

"I was in Patrol 69 around noon when we received an alarm:

‘Brush fire reported in Woodland Hills north of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.’

"Looking in that direction, I saw the header, flipped on the lights and siren, and headed toward it. Engine 69 was responding from the station and Patrol 269 was en-route from Old Topanga Canyon.

"As I wrestled the small truck through the road's twists and turns, I was thinking of the advice of old-timers who had fought a half-dozen fires in the same terrain. The only way to keep a fire out of Topanga is to stop it at the ridge that separates Woodland Hills from the canyon, they had said. But nobody had ever been able to stop a wind-driven fire at the ridge. I wanted to be the first.

"Every year, fire department bulldozers clear a fuel break along the ridge, and a dirt fire road passes through the middle of the cleared area. I pulled the patrol truck onto the fire road and drove a quarter-mile to a saddle where I could look down on the fire. The wind had died down, and the smoke was rising straight up.

"A few minutes later, Engine 69 arrived on scene. 'We've got a chance of stopping this thing here at the ridge,' I explained to the crew. 'If the wind doesn't pick up.'

"My plan was to backfire from the ridge toward the fire. That way, when the fire made its run to the top, it would run out of fuel before gaining the momentum necessary to cross the fuel break.

"We spaced ourselves about a hundred yards apart and began lighting backfires. The brush burned eagerly and the backfires began to grow together.

"Just then, the hot wind picked up and started to blow in gusts of 50 mph or more. About the same time, the heat from the main fire and our backfires merged to produce a kind of flashover.

"Spontaneously, we started running for our vehicles -- but we couldn't run fast enough. I had the sensation of being inside the curl of a giant ocean wave. But the substance of that curl was hot beyond description and filled with biting smoke and red-hot embers.

"It was like surfing in hell.

"As we ran, it was impossible to see or breathe. The embers were like a swarm of angry bees, finding their way into gloves, boots, collars and pant legs. By the time we arrived at our pumper, which had an open cab, the engine had died for lack of oxygen. We all rushed to the patrol truck and crowded into the cab. Before I could close the vent-wing, a thousand hot embers blew in after us.

"In two or three minutes, the worst was over, and we reemerged into the smoke and embers to extinguish fires that had started in the pumper's upholstery, hosebed and storage bins. At the same time, I reported to incoming units that the fire had slopped over the ridge and was heading into Topanga Canyon.

"Two days later, the fire was contained -- after the weather changed and moist ocean air replaced the Santa Anas. During those two days, my thoughts were dominated by remorse. In the quest for personal achievement, I had placed my crew in a position of unacceptable risk.

"In the years following that fire, the brush grew back, as it has for tens of thousands of years. And now it has burned again, as it must in order to propagate.

"The most to be gained from that frightening episode is a lesson I am compelled to share with others who are entrusted with the lives and welfare of emergency services personnel.

"In pursuit of a personal challenge, I placed my crew in jeopardy. They survived and forgave me, but I have never forgiven myself. The brush grew back, but dead firefighters and rescuers cannot be replaced. Regardless of our emergency service environment, let that be a lesson to all of us."

Hello Hollywood

In 1969, after moving my family off the ranch, I started getting the itch for some "flatland experience" (in LA County FD, that refers to a station that is not in "the stumps", the hilly or mountainous areas where brush fires occur). I put in a bid for Station 7 in West Hollywood. The transfer occurred in January, 1970. Thus began a series of events that would drastically change my life and career.

Fire Station 7 at 958 North Hancock in West Hollywood was built in 1924 with English Tudor architecture to fit into the neighborhood.Then and now, Station 7 was the oldest building used by the County Fire Department as a fire station (It was built in 1924, which may not seem old in other parts of the country. But, in Southern California, that meant the non-reinforced masonry construction of the building had survived numerous earthquakes. All other fire stations from that era had been replaced with more modern, earthquake-resistant structures). Station 7's architecture was English Tudor and it was intended to blend in with the neighboring residences on Hancock Street. I loved the place and it will always be my favorite fire station.

Station 7 housed an engine and a rescue squad (Engine and Squad 7) with a six-person crew. The rescue squad was still operating at the first-aid level. That included the administration of oxygen, splinting, and bandaging, but no cardiac defibrillation, no taking EKGs or administering drugs, and no insertion of adjunctive airways. We were not allowed to carry stethoscopes and only about half of our people had been trained in the new technique of CPR.

What’s a "Paramedic"?

About that time, we had heard about and read about (in department memos and "Straight Streams," the monthly magazine published by the Firefighters' Benefit and Welfare Assn.) the "Rescue Heart Unit" that was being implemented in Battalion 7. Previously, we had read about a new program in the Miami Fire Department wherein a number of firefighters had been trained to be "paramedics." In that Florida program, according to an article in Fire Engineering Magazine, the specially trained firefighters could do some sophisticated medical procedures that previously only physicians were allowed to do.

When I first read the article about the Miami "paramedic" program, I was fascinated by it. It caused me to think of all the people whose lives had slipped through my fingers over the years. There was so little we could do for them. The new concept of "paramedics" was promising but I doubted that our department would take such a bold step. Then I heard about the "Rescue Heart Unit" program.

The Miami program actually had been inspired by the work of Dr. J. Frank Pantridge of Belfast, Northern Ireland. He had created a mobile coronary care unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital and, over a period of a year or two, demonstrated that lives could be saved by taking emergency coronary care to the patient, rather than waiting for the patient to arrive at the hospital. He was

invited to the U.S. to report on his project at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology (ACC).

Attending the ACC meeting were Dr. Eugene Nagel of Miami, Dr. William Grace of New York, Dr. Leonard Cobb of Seattle, Dr. James Warren of Columbus, Ohio, and Drs. Walter Graf (of Daniel Freeman Hospital) and J. Michael Criley (of Harbor General Hospital) from Los Angeles, among others. Shortly thereafter, all of these cardiologists were putting together programs in their respective cities to try to achieve what Dr. Pantridge had in Belfast. Dr. Nagel, in Miami, was first to get his program up and running. In the Los Angeles area, Drs. Graf and Criley actually were constructing competing models. It was Criley's project that would hit the streets of L.A. first.

At the fire station level, we knew little of this background, except for the limited information that was reported in fire service and departmental publications. At about the time I transferred to Station 7, the first six L.A. County firefighter/paramedics were completing their didactic training and clinical rotations at Harbor General. Those six were Bob Belliveau, Dale Cauble, Gerry Nolls, Gary Davis, Bob Ramstead, and Roscoe ("Rocky") Doke, as I recall. It was time for them to take their skills to the street, but then someone pointed out that there was no law that would permit them to operate in the field without direct supervision.

Copyright 1998, James O. Page