BAY AREA FIREFIGHTERS united in grief over loss of two Contra Costa colleagues

BY KARLI BULNES

Though usually united by a duty to help others, Bay Area firefighters are today united by grief and a commitment to helping each other following the death in the line of duty this morning of two Contra Costa County Fire Protection District firefighters.

Captain Matt Burton, 34, of Concord, and Fire Engineer Scott Desmond, 37, of Brentwood, died while attempting to rescue an elderly couple from a burning home located at 149 Michele Drive in San Pablo, county fire spokeswoman Emily Hopkins reported.

The impact of their loss of life, felt heavily by family, friends, colleagues at Station 70 in San Pablo where they were members and the fire protection district where they worked, however, extends far beyond the borders of those communities.

“When any firefighter hears of a fellow firefighter in this type of tragedy it definitely rumbles throughout the department,” San Jose Fire Department Captain Anthony Pianto said.

“It’s a sad day,” Menlo Park Fire Protection Fire District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.

Though Pianto works in San Jose and Schapelhouman works in Menlo Park, as members of the close-knit firefighting family, they too are personally feeling the loss today of the firefighters in Contra Costa County.

“We lost two fellow comrades,” Pianto said.

“We lost two members of our family,” Schapelhouman added.

San Francisco Fire Department Lt. Ken Smith echoed those sentiments and offered condolences on behalf of his department.

“(With this) brotherhood, it hits close to home. It’s a unique fraternal organization and our hearts go out to the families,” Smith said.

When Schapelhouman heard the news this morning, he ordered all station flags be flown at half-staff and sent a message to the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District offering help and an offer to supply coverage when the firefighters are laid to rest so colleagues may attend the services.

Smith said the San Francisco Fire Department would also reach out to the fire
protection district to see if they needed any assistance.

Smith recalls the difficulty that followed the death in the line of duty of 40-year-old firefighter Melinda Ohler in 2003. On Jan. 8 of that year, Ohler fell from her spot on a truck as it was racing out from a station on San Bruno Avenue to respond to a call at San Francisco International
Airport.

Ohler, who was also a nurse, was pronounced dead the following week.

“It’s a tragic thing to go through,” Smith said.

Luckily, it is not something that firefighters have to endure often.

The last time a Bay Area firefighter was killed in the line of duty was Feb. 13, 2005. Santa Clara County Fire Department Capt. Mark McCormack, 36, was electrocuted by a downed power line while battling a four-alarm fire at a Los Gatos home, according to the fire department.

“Overall, the number of fatalities have dropped over time” because of modern engineering, sprinkler systems and advances in firefighting techniques that have made the job safer, Schapelhouman reported.

Schapelhouman said his department has not lost a firefighter in the line of duty in recent history.

However, he said the possibility is not lost on those who report for duty day in and day out.

“There’s tremendous risk in this job and you can never underestimate it,” he said. “On a good day everybody goes home.”

According to Smith, today’s tragedy serves as a reminder of the inherent risks and challenges involved with firefighting.

“It’s something that I am sure every firefighter thinks of at different times for different reasons,” Smith said.

“It could (have been us since) we’re doing that same job that same way,” he said. “But it’s what we signed up for. We don’t second-guess what we do or the danger that we walk
ourselves into.”

“It is a definite wake-up call for all firefighters that this is a dangerous occupation,” Pianto added.

Once the shock and sadness of today’s loss subsides, Schapelhouman said firefighters will search for lessons that could be learned from the tragedy.

“Once details are revealed, (we) will pay attention to how the fire was fought and what can be learned from it,” he said.

Until then, Schapelhouman said he will be hard at work leading his fellow firefighters to make sure everyone who reported to work today gets home safely.

Bay City News

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