The homeowner had no idea what was happening. There was a knock on the front door and a man shouting, “Fire department!”

The crew from Station 51 responded when an emergency call came over about a possible heart attack victim. As usual, there was a certain amount of confusion in the Santa Venetia neighborhood when the yellow fire engine rolled up to a residence.

The problem? The victim was unaware that emergency crews had been called.

Firefighters asked the homeowner if he knew who called 911. The answer was “No.” The crew got the same answer from neighbors, but finally firefighters figured out the problem.

The victim, who was working at the house, called his daughter to tell her he wasn’t feeling well. The daughter, in turn, called a medical clinic. The clinic then relayed the call to emergency services. That’s when the crew from Station 51 answered.

Firefighters checked the victim’s vital signs. He said he was having some chest pains and felt some tingling in his arm. He didn’t want to go to the hospital right away, but agreed to be checked out by a doctor within 24 hours.

“We didn’t just leave,” San Rafael Fire Captain Paul Bernard said. “We kept asking questions. We can’t make him go to the hospital, but we can help him see the situation.”

Down time? What down time?

Life at the firehouse can be busy, sometimes too busy. The paramedic crew at Station 51 answered three calls for care before 10 a.m. on this day.

The firehouse has a nicely equipped recreation/locker room upstairs with a billiards table, television, easy chairs and couch. There’s a thin layer of dust on the cover over the billiards table, suggesting it hasn’t seen much action lately.

That’s because the firefighters have been busy.

“San Rafael is like other, bigger cities,” firefighter Matt Williams said. “We have bad times; there were five fire calls last week. We have all the calls you’d get anywhere else.

“In San Rafael, we have to target certain hazard areas, like lumber yards, the marina, the highway. We might be the busiest department in Marin. We don’t want to have an emergency call, but we’re there when it happens.”

Williams and his fellow crew members have recently responded to a fire at a gas station garage and a shooting in the Canal District, along with several other welfare checkups.

San Rafael has 66 firefighters spread across seven stations, covering one of the largest areas in Marin County. And they have to be prepared for any kind of emergency.

The service area combines industrial and residential neighborhoods, one of the busiest stretches of highway in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as coastal and marina regions and a large urban wildland area. “Each station has a unique demographic,” Bernard said.

Firefighters are on duty for 48 hours at a time. They then take off for four days, but are never truly off duty.

“I made sure to let my neighbors know I’m a firefighter and if they ever need me to come get me,” Williams said.

It seems when firefighters aren’t out on a call, they are checking on their equipment and vehicles or dealing with endless paperwork – all essential to the job.

Today’s fire department

Trina Vadon is one of the new recruits in the San Rafael Fire Department, but she’s been with the department long enough to know this is the work she wants to do.

The Monterey County native could have pursued a career as a professional skier, one of her passions in life. She even studied to join the ski patrol, but an accident on the slopes made that an unlikely career. Vadon studied phlebotomy for about a month or, as she puts it, “just long enough to know it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Vadon would rather be on the front lines, where she feels she can do the most good.

“As a first responder, I can save lives,” Vadon said. “Those first few minutes are crucial to saving a patient.”

Like family

“You have your family at home and your family at work,” Williams said.

The firefighters gather around the dining table in the kitchen for lunch, a family affair of sorts. Some of the crew put their names on their lunches, a healthy salad or the ingredients for a PB&J sandwich. If something in the refrigerator isn’t labeled, it becomes community property. Even the battalion chief’s eggs aren’t safe, as he discovered when another firefighter made scrambled eggs.

“We all work together and know each other,” Williams said. “Around the holidays, the guys have their family come in for a meal. We’re all close here.”

Firehouse 51 has all the elements of a classic fire station, including a fire pole and the original fire bell. But the modern fire department is outgrowing the 98-year-old building.

Just getting the trucks in and out of the station can be a problem because the engines have gotten bigger and don’t easily fit the garage.

“There are some privacy issues,” Williams admitted. “[The station is] not designed to be co-ed.”

Emergency response

A patient’s chances of surviving a life-threatening injury or illness increase dramatically as soon as first-responders arrive on the scene.

“As soon as they arrive, the paramedics take over,” Williams said. “[San Rafael Fire Department Chief Chris Gray] said everyone in San Rafael deserves an accurate health assessment.”

The paramedics have a checklist of questions whenever they respond to a person in trouble. They will establish the patient’s state of consciousness by asking his or her name, location and the time. They ask about any history of illness or any medications the patient is taking.

As the crew from Firehouse 51 drove along North San Pedro Road, sounding the horn to alert traffic, schoolchildren waved to the crew, pleading with them to blast the horn again and again.

“San Rafael is a great community,” firefighter Pepi Morel said. “I’ve had a lot of positive contact with people.”

Contact Derek Wilson at

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