Making a connection with the community
Erika I. Ritchie, The Orange County Register
Jan. 11–Laguna Beach Fire Department Engineer Chris Ornelas knows working in the fire service is a calling rather than a job. It’s risky and there are constant unknowns.
And for that reason, he has been dedicated to showing the community the human face of the fire service and educating them on what’s involved. He’s created a community space for highlighting calls the firefighters go on, wildland fires they fight, or even lighter items such as a firefighter being razzed for making a bad meal and retirements from the department.
Since 2014, Ornelas has been managing the department’s social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – he joined the department in 2007 as a reservist.
Social media is a way he can build rapport with the community, he said, as well as a sense of camaraderie and belonging for those who serve now or did 30 years ago.
Recently, the 45-year-old was recognized by his peers as Firefighter of the Year for 2020.
“Peer recognition means you’re doing something right and that it’s coming from them,” he said of the honor that notes his accomplishments and special projects he does for the department.
In a small department like Laguna Beach, with its 36 firefighters, most take on special assignments when they’re not responding to emergencies.
Along with keeping the department current on social media, Ornelas is tasked keeping the fire engines gleaming and maintaining thousands of feet of the department’s fire hoses.
He has to keep a record of their age, test them for defects and purchase new fire hoses when old ones are retired.
“It’s super important,” said Capt. Scott Jennie, who oversees Ornelas at Fire Station 4. “If a fire hose has lived beyond its life and it fails when you’re in a fire, it could be detrimental when you’re in harm’s way. It’s our lifeline and we can follow it back out. We’re all trained how to follow it if we can’t see.”
Ornelas is also the department’s historian and is the one who, pre-coronavirus pandemic, toured students and adults through the city’s four fire stations.
“His interaction with the public is the most professional I’ve ever seen,” Jennie said. “Children who come around, he is so gracious and does such a fine job of educating them about the fire service.”
But, Ornelas doesn’t think that’s the reason he got the recent distinction. He attributes it to the social media work he does – even on his days off.
The platforms help him explain the fire service to the community, he said.
“People think when they hear sirens it’s a big accident, but when we go Code 3, it could be someone with a heart attack or stroke,” he said.
Beyond teaching the public about the fire service, Ornelas said he is most proud of uniting new, current and retired firefighters and their families and chronicling the department’s history.
“I take a lot of pictures,” he said, adding that typically the fire culture shuns recognition. Those who do newspaper or TV interviews typically end up treating their station to ice cream or other goodies.
“Doing a video of our older guys back in the day or taking photos now, being recognized is what it’s about,” he said. “That way when their career is up, they’ll look back and say, ‘I did something in my career.’
“I also want their families to see what they do.”
Including the retired firefighters is something he’s most proud of.
“It gives them a connection to a department that they’ve spent 30 years with and lets them know they are not forgotten,” Ornelas said. “I want the youngest firefighter to know who the oldest retired firefighter is.”
For Joanie Rowe, Ornelas has made all the difference. Her husband, retired Capt. Ron Rowe, died from leukemia in 2012. He served in the department for 32 years.
“Most people don’t realize the job that first responders do is grueling,” she said. “They see a lot of trauma in their jobs. My husband suffered because of what he saw in his job.
“Firefighting is a job they live for. If you’re left to drift away it’s sad,” she said. “Chris has me feel like I’m still part of the community. Because of his keeping us in touch, it’s made it an easier transition for someone who no longer has a husband who goes to that job.”
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