November 20, 2000
Every day is different for UCSC firefighters
By Jennifer McNulty
Like fire departments nationally, the vast majority of the 500 calls fielded annually
by the UCSC Fire Department are not fire-related. About 80 percent are emergency
medical services, or EMS, calls. Other calls include nuisance and false alarms, elevator
rescues, hazardous materials spills, cave rescues, and water vacuuming to clean up
leaks and flooding. The bulk of each workday is spent performing nonemergency fire-prevention
With the exception of historic structures like the Blacksmith Shop, every building
on campus is equipped with a fire alarm. "Early warning" systems, including
alarms and fire and heat detectors, alert the campus's emergency dispatcher of potential
problems. In addition, UCSC boasts many well-designed buildings that incorporate
fire-rated walls, doors, windows, and utility shafts.
Although smoking remains the most common cause of fires nationally, the biggest cause
of fires on campus is candles, which UCSC policy technically allows only as decorative
items. Some calls, like cave rescues, are due to UCSC's terrain. Others reflect the
unique population of a college community. The range of medical calls at UCSC varies
from sports injuries and muscle cramps to alcohol or drug-related calls and suicide
Bicycle accidents are all too common, said Captain Mike Quinton.
"Last year, a woman crashed her bike on the dirt road near the Farm," he
said. "Her helmet was literally split in two. When the paramedics got there,
they said, 'We told you to get a helmet.' It turned out she'd been in a bike accident
in town the week before without a helmet. This time she had one, and it saved her
Lots of the work is routine, including conducting safety inspections, servicing campus
fire extinguishers and hydrants; providing campus CPR and first aid training; inspecting
fire alarms, sprinklers, and smoke detectors; and conducting public education programs.
Additionally, firefighters spend dozens of hours each year in training programs so
they'll literally be ready for anything.
"In the 30 years I've been a firefighter, we've added so many skills--hazardous
material spills, releases, and response training; confined space rescues; and emergency
medical response," said Quinton, who lately has been studying the hazards of
cutting into electric cars to rescue victims of vehicle accidents. "That's the
thrill of this job--the inventory of skills, knowledge, and education we have to
maintain. You could never train enough."
And every now and then, something truly bizarre happens.
"We got a call one weekend that an aircraft was down over by Oakes College,"
said Quinton. "On the way over, I was trying to get more information, but it
turned out the pilot of this two-seater plane had deliberately landed on the grass
there. He was fine--he said he'd had carburetor trouble. When he wanted to take off,
I pointed out that his 'runway' was full of gopher holes and rocks, but he did it
anyway. That was something."
UCSC firefighters work ten 24-hour shifts per month, rotating through four spare
bedrooms and sharing meals in a combined kitchen/living area at the campus Fire Station
near the Crown-Merrill Apartments.
In addition to the obvious risks of fighting fires, on-the-job hazards lurk in unexpected
places, such as on the scene of automobile accidents. Firefighters have suffered
broken arms when air bags activated as they tried to rescue trapped motorists, said
Nevertheless, Quinton said he feels safer responding to calls today than when he
became a firefighter three decades ago, largely because of advancements in the protective
gear firefighters wear and the availability of more sophisticated firefighting and
The origins of the UCSC Fire Department lie in the ashes of the most spectacular
fire the campus has experienced. In April 1971, Hahn Student Services burned to the
ground, leaving only the concrete walls behind. With the flames went all of the registrar's
historical records and admissions data.
The fire, which broke out in the middle of the night, was caused by an extension
cord that had become frayed by foot traffic in what was then the Chancellor's Office.
The building lacked any early warning systems--no alarm, no fire detectors, no sprinklers.
And the campus lacked a fire department. By the time a resident in town noticed the
plume of smoke and called the city fire department, the building was completely engulfed
Later that year, the UCSC Fire Department was established. The current station, located
near the Crown-Merrill Apartments, opened in 1975 when that area was considered the
center of what was then planned as a 27-college university.
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