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Feeling like family

Working, living together forges bond at 'home way from home'

Firefighters work and live together for 24 hours, so they can't help but bond in a way people in other professions aren't able to do.

The firefighters at Station 6 in Palo Alto are no different. Long hours and a shared lifestyle have brought them closer together, they say, ensuring that they aren't just co-workers, but family.

Twenty-four firefighters work at the fire house, with an average of eight firefighters per shift. The shifts (A, B and C) are kept intact for the most part because while being able to work together during an emergency is absolutely necessary, so is being able to live with one another.

"Every shift has their personalities, and every shift thinks they're the best," paramedic and firefighter Mike Espeland joked. "It's like any other job: 'Birds of a feather flock together.'

"We're pretty similar in the fact that we do or don't like to train, how we do or don't like to joke around, how we do and don't like to run calls. All of that plays into who you are living with."

The firefighters start their work day promptly at 8 a.m. There are apparatus and equipment checks and daily chores before the crew sits down for their morning meeting. On a recent day, the crew members gathered around a circular table large enough to seat eight brawny firefighters. As one sipped on a cup of hot coffee and another read the newspaper, they chatted about sports and current events, occasionally taking jabs at one another as the fire house filled with laughter.

The fire station is older — it was built in the 1960s — with a lot of history. The walls are lined with photographs from the past, awards and fire memorabilia. There's a fire pole, a classroom for training, a full kitchen, a small gym, eight walnut-colored upholstered recliners and bathrooms for both men and women, although there are no female firefighters at Station 6.

During the morning meeting, they are briefed by Fire Captain Barry Marchisio — the father figure of their unique extended family, the firefighters said — on the daily objectives, including training for the day and any special assignments or important information.

When a call does come through, whether it's a medical problem or a fire, each person knows he can count on the others, firefighter Manny Macias said.

"Everyone here brings something to the table," he added.

The nature of their shift work allows some of the firefighters to hold second jobs. The firefighters are permitted to undertake second jobs with permission from Fire Chief Eric Nickel.

"The city has a policy that allows outside employment for any city employee with department head approval," Nickel said. "There are several restrictions on outside employment, such as outside employment can't interfere with primary city employment, no conflict of interest and department head approval is required annually."

The actual number of staff holding second jobs is relatively low, Nickel said, with 12 who have authorization. The majority of these people, he said, teach fire science and entry-level fire academy training at local junior college fire technology programs.

Some moonlight as business owners, like firefighter David Villarreal, who co-owns a wine bar on California Avenue with his wife, Lori Romero. The two live in Campbell but spend most of their time in Palo Alto and wanted to open a place where people their age (Romero is in her 40s) can have a glass of wine and socialize, Romero said.

Everyone has his own reason for working a second job. Extra income is a big one, but for paramedic and firefighter Eric Heller, working as a part-time fitness instructor gives him an outlet to relieve stress from the job, he said.

Macias, who owns two businesses, including West Coast Designz, a screen-printing facility in San Jose, said he just likes to keep busy.

"I have to be doing something," he said.

All agree none of them got into fire service for the pay. They're firefighters because it's something for which they have a passion, they said.

Many of the firefighters have been friends or have worked together for years, raised families together and enjoyed numerous outings — on and off the clock. The family dynamic of the fire house is beneficial for the firefighters, whose work can often times be extremely stressful.

Although the firefighters are trained to do everything possible to save lives, much of what they do involves death. There are different ways to cope, but the best way is to talk with one another, they said.

After a serious call, Macias said he goes back to work "because this place is what keeps me grounded."

"I do this job because I love it so much, but there are calls that screw with your head. There are times on TV, I can't watch things because it will come up and ... I'll get emotional. I'll be driving and see something, and I'll remember a call I got," he said.

Villarreal added: "All I do is talk to these guys. It's therapeutic. I don't bring it home."

Eventually 8 a.m. arrives again, and the firefighters are free to go home unless the oncoming shift is short staffed and someone is "forced in," meaning a firefighter is required to stay for an additional 24 hours of duty.

It's part of the job, they say.

"You have to wear 20 different hats and know how to adapt to each situation individually, which is kind of crazy, but I wouldn't trade this job for anything," Macias said. "And the best thing is my little boy looks up to me, and thinks I'm a hero."

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