Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Santa Cruz County: Arnie Wernick South Skyline Fire and Rescue Retires After 33 years #CaFire
After more than three decades of service, though, Wernick is hanging up his helmet and retiring as captain of volunteer Company 29, South Skyline Fire and Rescue.
"When you talk about 33 years, it just doesn't seem like that," Wernick said. "It seems like just yesterday."
But yesterday was 1976 when Wernick and his wife, Lorrie, first moved to the mountain community of Las Cumbres above Los Gatos. Wernick, who by day is a systems and software engineer working in biotech, had no idea then of the long and distinguished career he would have serving as a volunteer firefighter.
"Basically, we were at the end of a very long supply chain for emergency services," Wernick said of the Las Cumbres neighborhood in the late 1970s. "When I moved up here, it would be at least an hour before we got any medical services, and who knew about fire services?"
At that time, Wernick said, Las Cumbres had a small fire department and one fire truck, part of a deal it made with Santa Cruz County when Las Cumbres was formed, but there were no full-time firefighters. It was all volunteer and everyone in the neighborhood pitched in.
"Everybody just kind of showed up and did what they could," he said. "I thought it was a great way to get to know the community, so I just showed up. Over time, we became much more professional."
Today, Santa Cruz County Fire includes five volunteer companies, including Company 29. They all train and respond jointly with Cal Fire, which is contracted by the county to administer and manage Santa Cruz County Fire. Its volunteers receive all the same training any other Cal Fire firefighter would.
"The support we get from Cal Fire is stellar. That's just the only way to describe it," Wernick said. "The level of training we get, the level of commitment we get from their people, the level of professionalism, it's all beyond reproach. It's been really great being a part of such a wonderful organization."
Cal Fire deputy chief Ian Larkin credits Wernick with fostering a great company and with being the reason the work and level of commitment at Company 29 has been so strong for so long.
"Arnie has been very instrumental. He's been the pillar and kind of the glue that's kept the South Skyline volunteers together for so many years," Larkin said. "He's put a lot of people through the program and he's continued to try and recruit folks for a program that is well warranted. They do a tremendous job providing service up here on the ridge."
Through his years of service, along with the joy and satisfaction he got out of going on the numerous calls that the job entailed, Wernick also made it his mission to improve his volunteer company by ensuring that they were as trained and prepared as they could possibly be, and by recruiting as many new men and women as he could, both things that would ensure the continued success of Company 29.
"We had a volunteer fire department but we went through phases where it was hard to get people to volunteer," he said. "At one point, there were only three of us left, and at that point I made it my personal agenda to recruit some new people and bring them in."
Among those new recruits was Andy Seigal, who is now the captain of Company 29, replacing Wernick.
"Throughout the years, Arnie has pointed the way for any number of volunteers--for 20 years before I started, and 13 years since. He is very successful in showing what you can get out of being part of a group like volunteer fire fighting," Seigal said. "What he actually did was open a door for me to do something that I absolutely love doing. It's an incredible achievement to dedicate 33 years to almost anything, and I'm certain that we are all better off for it."
Recruiting new blood is so important to Wernick that it was even a factor in his deciding to retire at this time.
"I asked Arnie why he was retiring. He loves going on the calls. He loves everything about it. So why now?" said Lorrie Wernick. "He replied, 'I have to. If I don't, then I don't leave an opening for new people to join the fire department. If everybody thinks all of us who've always been on it will always be on it, then the new people won't sign up.' "
He is not leaving fire service all together, though. Wernick is the 5th District representative to the Santa Cruz County Fire Department Advisory Commission, a position he has held for five years and hopes to continue to hold. In that position, he will continue to work on recruiting and bringing new people into the volunteer system, and especially on funding for the Santa Cruz County Fire Department.
While he is prepared to hand things over to the "best trained and most committed team" he has ever seen, he says there is no question that he will miss the action, excitement and everything else the job gave him.
"There is a great deal of personal satisfaction in being able to do something to have a positive impact on your community," he said. "There is also a wonderful work/life balance you get by doing something like being a volunteer firefighter. It's just a totally different world, and most people do not have access to this world.
"I think it's great because you get to see life at its most basic levels. It's a lot different than the high-tech world where people get excited easily. You can be calm because you know what's serious and what's not so serious."
By Shannon Burkey, for Silicon Valley Community Newspapers
****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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