A flight path forged by fortitude

L.A. County Firefighter, Crew Chief/Paramedic Michael Dubron in the seat of a Firehawk helicopter at L.A. County Fire Department Camp 9 in Santa Clarita on Tuesday, October 01, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal
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The men and women who make up the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Air Operations Unit enjoy a slightly different commute than most. 

Early each morning, all personnel arrive at Whiteman Airport’s Barton Heliport, their home base.

The maintenance crew immediately gets to work inspecting the aircraft. While there are varying degrees of inspection needed, each aircraft will get a daily inspection, which takes them about 45 minutes to an hour. 

Then, air crews get together for their morning briefing, where they discuss each crew’s duties for the day.

L.A. County is comprised of 4,751 square miles, and the department staffs a minimum of three aircraft 24/7, with a total of 10 aircraft in reserve. 

Rather than leaving all three aircraft in one spot, air crews, typically made up of a pilot, crew chief paramedic and rescue paramedic, will reposition their aircraft across the county for better response time.

The first crew heads to Malibu, where they stand by until a half-hour before sunset, when they return to Whiteman. The second crew heads to Brackett Field Airport in La Verne, where they stay until the next morning. 

The third team heads to Camp 9 on Sand Canyon Road in the summer fire season because of the fire-suppression aids based there, repositioning to Antelope Valley just before sunset. They, too, return to their home base the next morning. This crew covers the geographic north third of the county, which includes the Santa Clarita Valley.

The entire Air Operations unit is comprised of 53 members — 12 pilots, 18 rescue paramedics and 23 maintenance support staff, all of which are essential to the mission. 

L.A. County Firefighter, Crew Chief/Paramedic Michael Dubron with a Firehawk helicopter at L.A. County Fire Department Camp 9 in Santa Clarita on Tuesday, October 01, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

Tight-knit crew

“We are a crew of three, but we have such a unique bond with the entire staff at air ops, because this aircraft doesn’t accomplish one mission without our maintenance staff and without all the logistical support that we get,” crew chief paramedic and Santa Clarita resident Michael Dubron said. “It’s a huge team effort.”

Though the necessity has always been there, Dubron, who has spent 23 years with the unit, has seen the program grow due to the number of calls they receive. 

“This is a multi-mission helicopter,” Dubron said. “There’s only a handful of us in the world that do this.” 

Emergency medical services make up the bulk of their calls, followed by search and rescue missions and brush fire responses.

“Our missions are very diverse,” he added. “When the season is right … we can be out at Catalina Island on a January day at 76 degrees, then go up and do an ice-shoot rescue in terrible conditions all in the same day — it’s crazy.” 

Depending on weather conditions, each air crew is ready to go within two to three minutes during the day and five minutes at night. Because they fly with the doors open, it may take them longer to suit up depending on where they’re going. The more challenging missions come at night, when the hazards are more prevalent.

As crew chief paramedic, Dubron’s job is to operate the winch, which lowers the rescue paramedic to the scene. After harnessing himself in, he’ll stand on a step just outside the aircraft. 

“While I’m sitting here talking to the pilot, he moves the aircraft as I tell him,” he said. “When we do that, if there’s someone down in a canyon, you’ve got to imagine the blades are getting relatively close to the terrain or hazards, as does the tail, so we’re very conscious of what we’re doing.” 

Each member of the crew has to be aware of how big the aircraft footprint is, such as where the wheels go and how wide the blades are (46 feet), and though they aren’t all trained pilots, they all know how to take off and land in case of emergency.  

“It’s a great job — I’ve been blessed,” Dubron said. 

L.A. County Firefighter, Crew Chief/Paramedic Michael Dubron in the door of a Firehawk helicopter at L.A. County Fire Department Camp 9 in Santa Clarita on Tuesday, October 01, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

He’s been with the department for nearly 29 years and has been flying for most of that time. 

Dubron moved to the Santa Clarita Valley at 2, and though he moved away and graduated high school in Oregon, his intention was always to get back to Southern California. 

He went into the Air Force, and fell in love with being a firefighter. While stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, he was in a flying fireman program, which was when he got his first taste of aviation.

After spending a year with the department, first at Station 73, then in the Antelope Valley, Dubron was drafted into the paramedic program.

“I am one of those guys that is fascinated with the human body,” he said, so it was a perfect fit. 

Once he’d completed training, he ended up back in the SCV, first on paramedic squad 124, then 107. “I love working in the community that I grew up in and still live in.” 

He had always had a love of aviation, and when a friend offered him a spot in air operations, he jumped at the opportunity, which was where he has now spent the bulk of his career.

While firefighting has been his primary job, an unexpected illness created a whole new mission for Dubron. 

L.A. County Firefighter, Crew Chief/Paramedic Michael Dubron in the seat of a Firehawk helicopter at L.A. County Fire Department Camp 9 in Santa Clarita on Tuesday, October 01, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

A change of course

In 2002, Dubron was feeling extremely fatigued, as though, “somebody took a needle and syringe and sucks every cc of energy out of my body — I felt like that all the time.” 

After insisting to doctors he knew something was wrong, he was diagnosed with cancer in 2003. As a paramedic who was constantly saving others, Dubron had suddenly felt as though he wasn’t in control. 

“Never in a million years did cancer ever come up — I was 39,” he said. “All of a sudden I was told I had cancer, and I had no clue what to do.” 

He was given just one to three years to live. “I can remember stopping at work on the way home from that appointment and telling the guys that I wasn’t coming back.”

Fortunately, after a second opinion, another doctor was able to surgically remove his cancer, and now he’s cancer-free 16 years later.

“It impacted me so much,” he said. “I don’t have the words to adequately describe the disbelief when you’re diagnosed with cancer.” 

After his experience, he realized the need for a support network for firefighters, so he and fellow survivors could help those who’d been diagnosed go through the process.

“This little hare-brained idea for just the department ended up turning into a nonprofit organization that took off,” Dubron said.

L.A. County Firefighter, Crew Chief/Paramedic Michael Dubron with a Firehawk helicopter at L.A. County Fire Department Camp 9 in Santa Clarita on Tuesday, October 01, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

Building a new network

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network, which Dubron founded in 2005, has now been endorsed by the state of California, International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. His family, coworkers and the department were all instrumental in allowing his idea to come to fruition, as well as the IAFF Local 1014 union, which helped to bankroll the operation. 

“It is still today the only nonprofit organization that is by resolution supported by labor and management in the fire service in North America,” Dubron said, adding that in California, cancer is considered a job-related illness for firefighters because of what they’re exposed to. “The support end of it grew rapidly, because at the time when I founded the organization, there was little to nothing being said about cancer in the fire service.”

Dubron’s first 10-year goal was to raise awareness, followed by education, with the next 10 years going to measure the effectiveness.

“Once we got in there and opened the door about cancer, we started changing the culture about how we do our business in the fire department,” he said. 

Since then, Dubron has been able to see the department become more proactive, such as ordering second sets of gear for firefighters, requiring them to shower within an hour of service, emphasizing annual wellness exams and installing diesel exhaust-extraction systems in stations. 

“There’s so many people across the country and around the world that have just taken this idea and embraced it,” he said, “taking it steps beyond I had ever imagined.”

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