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Firefighters Battling Invisible Enemy

San Marino Fire Chief Mario Rueda has been preaching the same narrative for more than two months whenever he is asked about the condition of his department.
“This pandemic is much worse for firefighters and other first responders than a burning building or a bad car accident,” Rueda has said. “We are trained for a fire or an accident and they are things we can see and evaluate. The coronavirus is an invisible enemy. We don’t know what we are fighting.”
The fire station never closes, its crews responding to calls around the clock. Firefighter-Paramedic Dave Tannehill has been answering call for 15 years and he agrees with the chief’s analysis, saying the department has responded well to the new requirements of the job.
“The really frustrating part for us is that we really can’t do anything to help,” said Tannehill. “We want the answer; we want to do something. With the coronavirus, it is something new that nobody knew anything about though we are learning more every day.”
Tannehill said that a great deal of his trade is evaluating and managing risks.
“Basically, firefighters and paramedics in San Marino are thoroughly trained professionals,” Tannehill added. “You don’t get to this job until you have a level of training. We study at fire science academies, attend emergency medical technician and paramedic schools, so by the time you reach the fire service, you have been trained. But we know we eventually have to take risks and the training helps you take calculated risks. We are a better investment for the community because we are taking educated risks. We all know the same material and we want to ply our trade.”
The day-to-day reality of responding to calls where a patient may have COVID-19 is, however, a game-changer. Shortly after the pandemic had brought about the “Safer at Home” restrictions, dispatchers began asking callers to 911 a series of questions that would help identify the prospective patient as someone possibly suffering from the virus. That didn’t mean paramedics didn’t have to respond to the call, it merely allowed them to increase preparation.
“As a firefighter for the city of San Marino, I have a duty to act,” Tannehill said. “And quite honestly, I would rather it be me than anyone else. I am a little older and some of our guys have younger families. There are certain rules for those of us who are dealing directly with the patient and Chief Rueda has done a great job of protecting us. I am pleased to say that the department has taken a proactive role to make sure we have the latest equipment and information.”
Tannehill said that early in the game, he was wearing better equipment and using more modern devices when entering hospitals than the doctors and nurses who were about to treat the patient.
“The citizens of San Marino provide us with the resources,” Tannehill said. “They expect a lot, but they also provide us with what we need.”
It’s still a stressful business for those on the front lines.
“Our families are in the exact same situation,” said Tannehill, who has a wife and two children and undergoes a thorough cleansing routine before entering his home. “I always wonder, ‘Who am I exposing to what?’ But if it’s inside of you, you don’t always know, and that’s the problem.”
He reported that morale at the SMFD is “good, but a little more stressful than usual.”
“People who enter the fire service are all about people, we care about people and we want to help,” Tannehill said. “It’s exciting, exhilarating. The camaraderie makes the work rewarding. We lift each other up. We talk openly about our concerns. I am an older person and I have been given a lot of grace in life and I would step up before a younger guy with younger kids.”
Tannehill graduated from Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, where he played baseball. He enlisted in the United States Navy, serving from 1986-90 as a seaman, sometimes aboard the USS Downes, which he says is now “a reef.” He held a couple different jobs that brought little satisfaction.
“I never felt really good about what I did,” Tannehill said. “One day I was talking to someone who had recently retired from the fire service. While he was talking about his life’s work he started to tear up. I thought that said a lot.”
It was enough to get Tannehill to enroll in the Santa Ana College for Fire Science. After graduating from the fire academy in 2001, he spent two years apiece at the Fountain Valley and Monterey Park fire departments before former Chief John Penido signed him up in San Marino.
Tannehill and his wife, Molly, have two children: Michael, a college student, and Kathryn, who is in high school.
He remains thankful to “that guy who shared his experience” and unknowingly pointed Tannehill towards the fire service.
“I sometimes get to help people, and at the same time I can support my family,” Tannehill concluded, his voice beginning to crack in possibly the same manner as his mentor. “It’s a dream come true.”


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