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Record 2020 for Calexico Fire Finds Arsons, COVID Took a Toll

CALEXICO  — For the 25 members of the Calexico Fire Department, 2020 was tough on numerous levels: COVID wreaked havoc on the community and an unusual number of arson fires plagued the city, which together resulted in a record number of calls for service during the year.

There was the physical fatigue of running 5,289 calls, a number that beat the previous high set in 2018 (4,819) by 470 calls, or nearly 10 percent.

While that might not seem significant in raw numbers, 470 more calls for service roughly equates to adding a whole other month to the year, given that the department averages from 14 to 18 calls a day.

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Then there’s the mental aspect. Call volume and COVID had its effect on the crew members of an already understaffed and overtaxed department, Calexico Fire Chief Diego Favila said.

From infections among the firefighters, to the fear that they might take the virus home to family members, or just the stress and time it takes to prepare and decontaminate from COVID calls, pandemic fatigue was real for Calexico’s firefighters.

“They worked super hard, they were super safe, and I’m super proud of how they conducted themselves,” Favila said during an interview on Tuesday, Jan. 5.

Calexico Fire Chief, Diego Favila. | FILE PHOTO

The department implemented many COVID-19 standards and practices during the year that crew members took to heart and assumed both on and off duty as an example to the community, Favila said.

“Calexico has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the county,” he explained, adding firefighters minimized family gatherings, exposure to others, didn’t take vacations during the year, for the most part, and walked it like they talked it.

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Still, the department was not immune from the effects of the virus. Favila said six firefighters came down with COVID during the year.

One of them was Firefighter/EMT Esteban Hernandez, who just got over COVID about three weeks ago. Mostly asymptomatic, Hernandez said he only lost his sense of smell, but admitted that COVID in general has taken its toll on the department and the community.

“I don’t think I’ve seen this much anxiety in the community as far as people being sick, family members suffering tragic losses. … You go to a house and everyone’s worried about this virus. It’s been a very difficult year,” the Calexico native said during an interview on Wednesday, June 6.

But First, the Fires …

In fire volume alone, the department responded to 720 calls in 2020. That’s not a record (there were 781 fire calls in 2017), but it’s a sizeable increase over the previous couple of years and noteworthy due to the fact that many of those calls were tied to intentionally lit blazes, some with malicious intent and some to provide warmth for the city’s homeless population, Favila said.

While the chief declined to ballpark how many were arson fires, he noted that 2020 saw the arrest of four serial arsonists, who combined were responsible for 50 infernos alone.

“There were definitely a lot of suspicious fires in 2020,” Favila said.

Calexico firefighters work the scene of a house fire on Rosemont and Heffernan avenues in Calexico on Dec. 16 that displaced multiple families living under one roof. The Calexico Fire Department responded to a record number of calls for service last year. Fire calls increased, as well as calls for medical service due to COVID-related emergencies. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

He added that although there were the usual albeit increased spate of trash and palm tree fires, vehicle fires, and accidental residential and commercial fires, thanks to tips from the community, security footage and other means, some of the intentional blazes did not go unchecked.

Sadly, Favila said, much of the problems the department encountered comes back to the homelessness issue rampant in Calexico and much of the Imperial Valley.

“We have an epidemic homeless problem,” he said, adding all four of the arsonists apprehended by police were transients.

Medical Calls Crush Calexico Fire

It was the medical side in which the department shattered previous call records, and of course, COVID was the driving factor.

Calexico fire is the only department in Imperial County that still runs its own ambulance service, and firefighters/EMTs/paramedics were busy running 4,541 calls in 2020, an 11.3 percent increase over 2019.

About 700 of those calls were related to COVID, Favila said, and those were just the calls in which crews knew what they were heading into.

Calexico Fire Department paramedic response vehicle waits in traffic during 2020, a year in which the department had a record number of service calls, eclipsing previous years by a longshot due to COVID-related medical emergencies and arson fires. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

The chief said there were many cases where the ambulance was sent for an unrelated matter and then it was found out later that a patient ended up being COVID-positive.

What’s more, as many already know, Calexico ambulance crews weren’t just running into residents’ homes to provide aid, they were also responding to COVID-infected American citizens living in Mexicali, who would show up at the downtown Port of Entry looking to be taken to local hospitals.

Many of these situations presented the same type of logistical challenges faced by first responders throughout the pandemic: potential exposures, and transport and patient-off-loading times doubled and tripled due to COVID procedures and precautions, including becoming enrobed in protective gear and decontamination of equipment, vehicles, and themselves.

Unfortunately, the mental aspect of dealing with COVID in 2020 was perhaps the most Herculean challenge for the department.

“Some guys handled it well, some guys needed help. We had group counseling to help deal with it,” Favila said. “COVID fatigue; it’s real. … Every potential COVID call heightens your response to it.

“‘Is this the call I’m going to get sick on?’ ‘Am I going to take it back to my family?’” the chief said.

One Firefighter’s Perspective

Firefighter Hernandez was in the thick of it all in 2020, and he might have paid the price.

As an EMT, he had to respond to many of those record number of medical calls, and he is not sure whether he became infected with COVID through the job or by doing something as innocuous — but now as potentially hazardous — as going to the store, he said.

Calexico Firefighter and EMT Esteban Hernandez, 31, is shown in a selfie he took on Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, from the Calexico fire station. Hernandez is back to work after recovering from a mostly asymptomatic (he lost his sense of smell only) case of COVID-19 about three weeks ago. Like many of the Calexico firefighters, 2020 was a tough year as they ran a record number of calls during an unprecedented health emergency. | COURTESY PHOTO

“Obviously, the workflow has increased a lot. There’s more calls, and the job already in itself is tough. It takes a lot of mental preparedness. It takes a lot out of a person,” Hernandez said, but he added that with COVID, there’s a new layer to that.

“It’s hard, because it does put a lot weight on the guys’ shoulders, and you run a couple COVID calls a day and you’re going home to your family worried about whether you’re giving it to them,” he said.

While Hernandez lives alone, he does have a daughter, and in the early days of the pandemic, he was fearful he might infect her, so he went two months without seeing her. He still tries to keep his distance from other members of his family.

Hernandez, who has been a firefighter for three and half years, starting at Imperial County fire and joining Calexico in November 2018, said some firefighters in the department go home, they undress in the garage and go inside wearing next to nothing for fear they might bring something home.

What’s worse, some firefighters don’t even like to go home at all, he said, and sleep at the station as not to expose loved ones.

“We take care of others and take care of our families. It’s a lot of stress,” the 31-year-old said.

Hectic Year All-Around for Calexico

Those 5,289 calls to the Calexico Fire Department in 2020 came through the Calexico Police Department Communications Center, or more commonly referred to as “dispatch,” according to Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo.

In 2020, Calexico police staff, too, was affected greatly by COVID. In early December, some 10 Calexico P.D. employees were downed by coronavirus, including Gerardo himself and six patrol officers. For the year, there were a total of 19 Police Department staff who contracted the virus, nine of those cases coming during the first surge and most affecting nonsworn personnel, including dispatchers.

Despite the challenges presented by the virus, the communications center facilitated 79,248 calls — 18,319 were through the 911 system, 38,906 calls were non-911, some 19,437 were outbound calls, and 2,586 were hang-ups.

“They also handle all police, traffic control, meters, animal control, and fire/EMS radio transmissions; the call volume is a lot for a two-person shift. Dispatch is the first voice our citizens hear in their time of need,” Gerardo wrote in an email Wednesday. “They are the voice of calm and ears for information gathering. Dispatch is a very stressful job. I commend the dispatchers for managing all these calls and for their hard work and dedication.”

As far as what the Police Department saw in a year that was equally daunting for its officers, who, like their fire brethren, were overtaxed and understaffed, were major year over year increases in a number of areas.

Gerardo reported increases in calls for burglaries (165 percent), mostly in commercial areas; citizen arrests (69.4 percent); deceased persons calls (135 percent); patrol checks (57.7 percent); and verbal disturbances (39.3 percent).

On the opposite end, due to so many people at home from telecommuting, distance-learning, or sadly, job losses and layoffs, there was a decrease in calls for auto theft (32 percent); attempted burglaries (27.3 percent), mostly residential; alarm calls (18.7 percent); and automobile tampering (17.9 percent).

For Fire Family, A ‘Bittersweet’ Reward Ahead

With such a tumultuous year behind the department and still much to face in 2021 as the country’s third wave of the pandemic continues and the county’s second surge is in full bloom, Fire Chief Favila said fire crews had the added stress of living out of temporary quarters for the last few years.

A decade in the making, the city awarded a nearly $6 million construction contract over the summer to build a state-of-the-art fire station in the same location as the last station headquarters on 430 E. Fifth St., next to the Police Department.

Demolition of the site started in late October, with all the leveling and underground work, such as plumbing, having been wrapped up over the last several weeks. Now, Favila said, the footings for the foundation were poured this week, and this is the point where things will begin to really take shape.

A siren donated by the Rodriguez and Green families that was installed atop a tower at the old Calexico fire station in May 1972 is shown. The siren was removed on Oct. 27 as the department was being demolished in preparation for the construction of a new station expected to be finished in August 2021. The siren will be displayed in the new fire station. It was taken from a nearby railyard and used to alert volunteer firefighters their services were needed, according to Chief Diego Favila. | COURTESY PHOTO

Still, the last station, built in 1970, was basically condemned and deemed unlivable toward the end of 2017. Since then, the fire crews have been housed in the former Calexico annex of the Imperial County Superior Court on Fourth Street, almost immediately behind the old station.

“When we got into the old courthouse, we had to do upgrades. They had no hot water; we had to add water heaters,” Favila said. He added that transitioning into a new fire station amid the chaos of 2020 was an unneeded layer of stress.

“This is a bittersweet time; bitter because we’re making do with the old courthouse as our home,” the chief said. “But the sweet part at the end of the tunnel is a state-of-the-art firehouse for us.”

The guys’ eyes are fixed on August, the estimated move-in date that Favila said is very much on track.

He added that there were a lot of memories tied to the old station. For Favila, who started his career with Calexico in 1996, he has had “24 years of awesome memories.”

To honor fire crews of the past and some of the mementos of the department, there will be items displayed in a couple of places. The courthouse will serve as a repository for some of the larger antiques, such as old fire engines and other fire equipment. In the new station, there will be an area set aside for the old fire pole, which will be trimmed to fit in the new single-story firehouse.

The Calexico fire crew from 1972 that was responsible for installing a donated railyard siren atop a tower at the old department is shown. Pictured are Hank Hendricks, Rudy Gabriales, Armando Zuniga, Cando Lopez, Frank Mercado, and Arthur Green. The siren is historic in that it was used to alert volunteer firefighters their services were needed, according to Chief Diego Favila. The siren was removed on Oct. 27 as the department was being demolished to make way for a new station. The siren and photo will be displayed in the new fire station. | COURTESY PHOTO

One of the more significant artifacts is the old siren that was affixed to the communications tower that recently came down as part of the demo. The siren, along with a photo of the crew responsible for installing it, will get an honored spot in the new station.

The siren is special because it was donated by the Rodriguez and Green families, Favila said. Arthur Green was a fire captain in the 1970s, whose family had a connection to a nearby railyard. The siren was taken from there and retrofitted to work at the firehouse in May 1972 as a way to alert volunteers when their services were needed, the chief said.

Favila said it seemed as if a new station would never happen, and many of the crew members had an attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

“Now, we’re actually seeing it,” he added.

“The vibe of the guys in the place is, they’re excited. Some are a little impatient, but it’s coming,” Favila said. “They’re excited for sure. They deserve it.

“I am so proud of the firefighters we have here; proud of them and proud of their families who sacrifice their time,” he added. “I cannot say enough.”

A Calexico Fire Department engine responds to a nighttime fire call in the city during 2020. The department responded to a record number of calls for service last year. Fire calls increased, as well as calls for medical service due to COVID-related emergencies. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
A collage created for Facebook by page co-administrator, Calexico Firefighter R. Canizales, shows the department in action in 2020, when it set a record by responding to 5,289 calls for service. The collage is made up of department photos from members, video screenshots, and submissions from private citizens. | COURTESY IMAGE