Carmel Valley Station 47 marvels new firefighters


Robyn Benincasa, a firefighter at Pacific Highlands Ranch Fire Station 47, likens her fire crew to “The Brady Bunch.”

The new station’s “A” crew Captain Greg George is the head of an all female outfit, including Benincasa, firefighter paramedic April Lallo and engineer Melissa Cleary; all close friends who transferred together from Point Loma. They are the only regularly scheduled all-female crew in the county.

After six months in Pacific Highlands Ranch, they are one very happy bunch, enjoying protecting the surrounding community out of their enviable home.

The “A” crew is one of three working in a rotation of 24-hour shifts at Station 47, twelve firefighters in total. Captains Dave Connor and Paul Carrozza head up the “B” and “C” crews respectively.

“Everyone here in the fire station has a lot of experience,” George said. “The community can feel really confident that they are getting some of the best of the best.”

All feel very lucky to be working at what is considered one of the nicest fire stations in the city - Mayor Jerry Sanders even said so at the February grand opening.

“I love it, it’s the best,” said Benincasa of 47. “Everyday we pinch ourselves.”

As happy as they are to be in the community, the response from residents has been just as warm, Benincasa said.

“We’re glad they’re here,” said Manjeet Ranu, a Pacific Highlands Ranch resident and representative on the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board.

Ranu said that the 2007 wildfires only reinforced the need to have a fire station in their community.

“On the rare occasions that I actually hear sirens, it reminds me that we’re fortunate to have first-rate emergency services right here,” Ranu said.

Neighbors have had plenty of opportunities to see firefighters out and about as a lot of the work they’ve been doing in the last six months has been driving around; getting to know streets and neighborhoods and learning how to get into gated communities. Knowing all the area’s “nooks and crannies” is important in times of emergency when they need to get someplace very quickly, according to Benincasa.

The new “digs”

The 10,500-square-foot station is located on Edgewood Bend Court off Carmel Valley Road. With its Spanish-style architecture, it fits right in with the feel of Pacific Highlands Ranch.

Its look makes it strikingly different than the 46 other stations in the city, George said. The doors to the engine bay don’t even roll up; they open up like barn doors or as Benincasa jokes, the gates of heaven. She’ll even imitate the angel’s singing.

During their 24-hour shifts, firefighters get to whip up meals in a state of the kitchen that features four refrigerators, stainless steel countertops and its very own coffee bar.

The A shift has the most decorated fridge, with pictures of the female firefighters enjoying days off together and participating in events like the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk for the Cure.

The kitchen opens up into the day room, where firefighters can hang out and rest between calls or watch TV in the four inviting easy chairs.

Station 47 also has a fully stocked gym where some other city stations may only have a collection of free weights, George said.

“Our crew really likes to work out,” said Benincasa, who is also a well-known endurance athlete. “We’re in there all the time.”

Faster response times

According to George, the new station has one of the lower call volumes in the city. They are responding mostly to traffic accidents, heart attacks and fires on the freeway due to their close proximity to Highway 56.

So far, Pacific Highlands Ranch has not been a community that has called out these firefighters to coax cats out of trees.

“When this community calls us, we know they really need us,” George said.

Dispatch is handled by a computer-aided system. It figures out in real time what engine is physically closer to the incident location. For example, for one recent incident at the Pacific Athletic Club, Station 47 was called to the scene even though Station 37 on Del Mar Heights is closer. Their engine happened to be elsewhere at the time and the computer can calculate if one engine has another beat by as little as 22 seconds.

“It’s had the same effect as if we had added fire stations,” said George.

Each department engine and ambulance also has its own personal digital assistant (PDA), where they can easily transfer incident and patient information to trucks responding to the scene and in turn to emergency rooms using an award-winning program designed by George.

Target hazards

Station 47 crews have recently taken on the task of identifying areas that are considered part of the urban wildland interface, where brush-filled canyons come together with homes.

Some neighborhoods have done a better job than others of creating defensible space, George said, and it is the department’s job to find the spots that could pose a wildfire threat.

Areas include the canyon behind Cathedral Catholic High School, spots off Del Mar Heights and Caminito Mendiola, past Pacific Highlands Ranch.

Once all of the district hazards are identified, the department will work toward clearing those areas.