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GET TO KNOW THE MORONGO VALLEY FIRE DEPARTMENT HIGHWAY HEROES.
The sun slips behind the mountains on a spectacular spring evening in the desert. You are driving home to Palm Springs after a fun-filled day at Joshua Tree National Park with your children. As you descend the Highway 62 grade, you gaze up at the vibrant sky, smiling as your children play and giggle in the back seat.
Suddenly another car comes charging toward you, and before you can turn the wheel, the impact comes, the shatter of glass fills the air, the sound of children shrieking. You are knocking on death's door.
This grisly scenario is an example of what occurs all too often on Highway 62 and in the day-to-day life of a Morongo Valley Fire Department firefighter. Morongo Valley firefighters and the department’s paramedics, captains, engineers, and reserve personnel are the first emergency responders on this stretch, recently described as one of America's deadliest highways by the Desert Sun.
After release of the Desert Sun article, I was curious to find out more about the people running the Morongo Valley Fire Department. Who were these "Highway Heroes" and how do they manage the responsibility that comes with their territory? What I found out was shocking, so much that I am compelled to share.
Through a friend of mine, I was granted a series of interviews with the firefighters of Morongo Valley, their fire chief and the secretary. Soon I learned that the MVFD is functioning on a shoestring budget and very much in need of funding. Fire Chief, Jock Johnson, has a 24-year career in the fire service, with two years at Morongo. He calls this department one of the most challenging he has encountered due to funding, highway danger, and extreme fire hazard location.
Morongo Valley is a community service district (CSD) which operates it's fire department by managing a portion of the area's property taxes and a fire assessment fee that residents pay each year. Johnson has a budget of approximately $544,000/year. This includes pay for 27 employees, engine and equipment maintenance, gear, training and more. If you have not already done the math, that is less than $20,000/year per employee! The paramedic who is trained to save your life is making a whopping $8.17/hour. There is no budget for benefits or vacation pay. (Note-according to Salary.com the median paramedic salary in Riverside County is $41,732.)
What was even more astonishing to me was the level of commitment these employees have to their jobs, their community and to each other, despite the very low pay and career dangers. Over the course of 10 interviews I found a family-like environment at this little station based on loyalty, trust and a strong work ethic.
Captain Jeff Rarey was my first "victim" and kind enough to show me around their tightly run ship. Most of the firefighters work four or more 24-hour shifts straight, making kitchen and sleeping quarters necessary. Eight or more staff bunk in a 12’x20' room. Furnishings are simple yet functional. Resting on a bunk is a well-worn teddy bear as a reminder of family members at home.
I asked Rarey, a firefighter of 14 years, what makes him stay despite the challenges. "I still have the passion and drive for it. I like to give back. God gave me the calling to help people in their worst time of need."
The quality of these people is impeccable. What they are willing to put themselves through for pennies is unbelievable.
Richard Gilmartin, a full-time paramedic for MVFD, describes in vivid detail the dangers he encounters on a call. "When a medic is working on a rescue, many bodily fluids are in close contact. You must be prepared to handle HIV, hepatitis etc." Remember, this man is being paid less than the average fast food employee. Gilmartin explains a typical day. "We don't sit around watching TV waiting on a call, we're busy checking our equipment, doing reports, training, working on projects and events for the community. We do so much more than firefighting."
I questioned all of the employees regarding their experience with the deadly Highway 62. Chief Johnson told me that last year there were so many head-on collisions that they asked CAL TRANS for help. As a state project, delineators were installed along the highway, which has helped to reduce the number of fatalities. Morongo Valley sits in a unique location with the closest resource (other engines) a good 20 minutes away making them the first emergency responders to accidents. Here lies an enormous responsibility with regards to the "Golden Hour". This is the time frame they must work within to extricate the injured party from the vehicle and get them to the operating table.
Captain Andrew Arthen, a seasoned fire fighter, recalls some of the worst collisions he has ever seen on 62 and the vigor his crew gives to save these lives. "You see the hope in their eyes, they give 110%. Sometimes it doesn't work and you see the disappointment." Some of these crew members are very young and fresh out of the academy. At MVFD the reserves are treated like regular fire fighters, where many other departments will have them doing paperwork for years before ever riding out on calls. These tender eyes are likely to see horrific tragedy early in their careers. Derek McClain was a reserve at MVFD for approximately two weeks before his first call. It was a gruesome car/pedestrian collision where the pedestrian was killed instantly. I asked McClain how he was able to deal with this situation. "All the guys were checking on me throughout the call and after, asking if I was okay. It is very reassuring to know these guys have my back."
After a call such as this, the staff have a CISD, or Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, where all of the crew on scene are encouraged to vocalize their feelings and concerns. A counselor or chaplain can also be called on, if necessary. "If you let the things you see and deal with get to you, it will ruin your career," said Carlos Munoz, a MVFD Paramedic.
Engineer Christopher Palmer explains to me how crew safety is a serious issue on the Morongo Valley grade. Despite some recent radio upgrades, there is a dead zone in the middle of the grade. "You can't talk to anybody. It's hard to close the whole highway down, people still fly by. We've had some tire-screeching close calls."
MVFD has its challenges but a positive attitude prevails. Every firefighter I interviewed told me of the camaraderie they enjoy at Morongo. Jorge Partida, a volunteer reserve, drives in from Torrance, California, once a week. He earns $50 for a 24-hour shift. "These people become your family, you live with them, and you depend on them." Chief Johnson raves about his team. "My staff is top notch. I wish I could give them what they're worth. I am honored to have a staff this professional."
The brave firefighters of Morongo Valley provide many services to their community and visitors to the area including; fire operations, paramedic, emergency response, disaster relief, rescue and education outreach. As an active member of the Palm Springs community, I was startled to become aware of the funding needed just up the road from me. Many residents and tourists alike will drive up the Morongo grade and fly right past this little fire station without thought to the people inside.
These Highway Heroes are working hard for us. I am part of a growing campaign that believes we should work to support them as well.
Article & Interviews Courtesy of:
Odessa Christiana & David Parker
Concerned Coachella Valley Residents
& Highway Heros 62 Supporters