Editorial note: This story contains vulgarity.
The firefighters of Los Angeles City Fire Station 9 are used to distractions. Give or take every fifteen minutes, the robotic chatter of a printer typing up the details of the latest emergency call or the roar of a fire engine as it leaves the building cuts through whatever train of thought might have been humming along the brain. “There goes another one,” comments Captain Chris Sebourn, as another siren wails its way through the streets outside the fire station.
Station 9 is one of the nation’s busiest stations — if not the busiest. According to the most recent National Run Survey, the station answered 27,338 calls in 2015. For comparison, in 2006, the average number of calls in the nation was just 6,654. That same year, Fire Station 9 responded to more than 22,000 calls.
But a blaze isn’t breaking out on every corner of the station’s 0.75-square mile territory, in fact, hardly at all. Station 9 serves Los Angeles’s Skid Row, a 54-block area of downtown Los Angeles that somehow got left behind. Contained within 3rd Street on the north, 7th Street on the south, Main Street on the west and Alameda Street on the east, vestiges of the neighborhood’s plight are evident. Rows of tents, piled up bicycles, and detritus fill the sidewalks. Each block is inevitably guarded by men and women who bear haunted looks, searching for their way in the world. Los Angeles is home to the largest number of chronically homeless people in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s report to Congress released last year. Nearly 13,000 people wander Los Angeles’ streets, 95% of whom live outdoors, in tents, cars, and other makeshift shelters. About 2,500 of them eventually find themselves in Skid Row, where many social services such as religious missions and rehabilitation centers are headquartered. It’s a tough neighborhood filled with down on their luck residents and transients, many of whom are grappling with mental illness or substance abuse. It is no wonder then that ninety-five percent of the station’s calls are medical, says Sebourn. “We’re their medical coverage,” says Captain Philip Hershey. It is an unenviable position for fire stations.
The firefighters respond to a broad range of calls. Last November, firefighters responded to a scene where a 27-year-old construction worker was impaled by at least two pieces of rebar. Firefighters used a saw to cut the rebar, leaving it embedded inside the worker. The patient was transferred to a trauma center where he was able to recover from his injuries, says Hershey. “The rebar missed all his major organs by inches.”
All calls at Station 9, however, are not this gory. Even the smallest complaints generate calls from the area’s downtrodden residents. One phone call had firefighters racing, only to find the homeless resident had minor difficulty breathing, yet insisted on riding the ambulance to hospital.
“Why the fuck aren’t we moving yet?” demanded the caller, as firefighters secured the patient to the transport chair. Given the high incidences of mental illness with homelessness, the caller’s abrupt demeanor could be excusable, yet it doesn’t make the firefighters’ jobs any easier either.
Callers often think that riding an emergency vehicle warrants faster service at the hospital, only to find out their mistake as they still wait in a long line. “It’s not first come, first served at the hospital, it’s worst come, first served,” says Hershey.
Calls big and small come through the fire department, but given the station’s heavy burden of work, one sometimes wishes the calls could be further whittled down to true emergencies. After all, there are only two advanced life support engines, two advanced life support ambulances, two basic life support ambulances and one basic life support truck housed inside the station. But firefighters are obligated to respond to all calls because the city might become liable should a seemingly innocuous call result in more grievous consequences.
Despite their role as makeshift safety nets for the 8,000 to 10,000 residents of Skid Row, firefighters are often disparaged. Screaming and yelling are common occurrences on calls. One homeless resident even went so far as to throw feces collected in a cup at a firefighter on the street.
Then, there are the odd calls, where firefighters are asked to act as plumbers, mediators in arguments, and everything in between. One incident even requested firefighters to knock on the doors of the Alexandria Hotel to ask them to turn on their heaters.
Being a firefighter at Station 9 is unquestionably a thankless job that takes a grueling toll. Nineteen firefighters work 24-hour shifts from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. in a nine-day cycle, where they work alternately for five days and take four straight days off (a system popularly called a Kelly shift schedule). They work 24/7, every day of the year. Add that schedule to the station’s tough customers and it’s enough to scare away the bravest of men.
“Most people shy away from this station, but the guys that want to be here, want to be here,” says Hershey.
Firefighter Tony Navarro has been working at the station for close to ten years and he says he can’t imagine working anywhere else. Sure, he has learned not to kneel on the sidewalk or have his gear lying around willy-nilly (the streets tend to be littered with hypodermic needles, urine, or vomit), but the neighborhood affords him the opportunity to really be of service. “When I first transferred here form the Valley, I was shocked immediately, but I also realized that this is where I could truly learn my job,” said Navarro.
Dedication is a true asset when it comes to taking on a job like this in Skid Row. Over the past ten years, the station’s workload has increased substantially. Hershey theorizes that downtown Los Angeles’s recent resurgence has only hemmed Skid Row residents further into the neighborhood. Residents of new apartments and hipster establishments going up around downtown Los Angeles have pull when it comes to city resources.
Firefighters say that policemen in other districts of downtown Los Angeles have amped up their street cleaning by becoming more aggressive about having the homeless off the streets, away from upscale establishments, eventually pigeonholing them inside Skid Row.
Sebourn and Hershey agree there are no easy solutions to Station 9’s overload. More ambulances or firefighters at the station would only help alleviate the workload, but doesn’t necessarily address the root of the problem, homelessness.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority estimates that 30 percent of L.A.’s homeless are mentally ill, 23 percent are struggling with drugs, and 17 percent have some form of physical disability. Eighteen percent even have a history of physical or sexual abuse. According to UC Berkeley professor emeritus Sam Davis, homelessness is a dehumanizing experience that is difficult to get out of. “Job loss, long-term unemployment, lack of affordable housing options and gentrification are all contributing factors to homelessness.” And the only way to get out of this downward spiral is to build more supportive housing — housing attached to social services. Los Angeles hopes to do just this now that voters have narrowly approved Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax that would go toward homelessness initiatives. Measure H advertisements have promised to move about 45,000 homeless into permanent housing during the first five years, while preventing 30,000 families from becoming homeless in the first place. Solutions like these are far beyond the reach of Station 9 firefighters.
Nevertheless, the firefighters of Station 9 all put in their 24-hour shifts despite the Sisyphean task put before them. Their grueling schedule results in a strange silver lining, a feeling of brotherhood — the kind forged in only the most demanding of circumstances. “These guys are why I’m still here,” says Navarro.
Top image: Carren Jao