In his 36 years as a firefighter, Capt. II Rick Godinez has seen it all — from natural disasters to the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
From his roles as a firefighter to fire chaplain, public information officer to incident support team member, the Santa Clarita resident has gone above and beyond the call of duty while with the Los Angeles Fire Department, according to his peers.
And now, as Godinez enters his final days before retirement, he’s about to get the cherry on top: the distinguished award for Firefighter of the Year.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to get to do half of the stuff (I’ve done),” he said.
A call to action
Godinez remembers being a freshman in high school when he was told he should know what he wants to be by the end of the 10th grade.
“It’s kind of ridiculous to think about,” he said. “What high school sophomore knows what he wants to do? But it just was in the back of my mind.”
After visiting LAFD Station 87, which was right down the street from his house, with his brother and watching several episodes of “Emergency,” Godinez decided he had found his calling.
“My junior year, I went back to the station and talked to the firefighters there, and I was convinced… I really wanted to be a firefighter,” he said. “From that point on, for the next two years, that was what I was going to pursue.”
Though it took a few years, Godinez remained committed to his goal, working toward an associate degree in fire science while training as a fire explorer.
“I was just focused on this was going to happen — this was like do or die,” he said, laughing. “And, it was my dream job.”
That dedication paid off, and a week after his 21st birthday, he started the Fire Academy as the youngest in his class.
Some of the notable incidents
“I was told really early in my career that I needed to become a subject matter expert at something, whatever it might be, and for me, it was urban search and rescue and public information officer,” he added.
After being one of the pioneers for USAR in L.A., his department began teaching other agencies.
“We flew to San Francisco for this one-day operation … and it was all to see if we can get our personnel and equipment onto a C-130 and fly out within a certain period of time,” he said. “From that training and that event, (we) became California Task Force 1, which is one of 28 teams nationally that go out the door for earthquakes, hurricanes, disasters. So, I’ve been on that team since the inception.”
That has led to a plethora of memorable experiences, such as deploying to a number of hurricanes and to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, as well as quite a few notable local incidents, like the 1992 L.A. riots and 1994 Northridge earthquake.
One of those instances Godinez said he’ll never forget was his deployment to New York after 9/11.
“9/11 was its own, very surreal (experience), and what made that unique in its own sense was the fact that we knew … we’re going to go through this rubble pile and there’s going to be firefighters in there,” he said.
For the first time, a critical incident stress team was deployed, not to search as there were others who had already been sent to do so, but to help firefighters get through it all.
“The site, the smell, the visuals were just — it’s just really unbelievable,” he said. “When you picture 210-story buildings, reduced to just maybe five, six stories high of rubble. And, the unique thing was there was nothing recognizable. It wasn’t office chairs, toilets, phones … everything was pulverized, so it was just this smoldering pile of metal and debris.”
He remembers standing over the pile, talking with a New York fire lieutenant, who was waiting for the OK to continue searching, when the firefighter started to cry.
“I mean, tears are flowing down his eyes, and I go, ‘You OK?’” Godinez said. “And he goes, ‘My two boys are in that pile.’ And he had two sons — one was a police officer and one was a firefighter… I had no words.”
At that moment, they were approached by another firefighter who handed them each a pile of letters.
“They were just handwritten drawings and letters, (that said), ‘Dear firefighter, you’re my hero, thank you,’” he said, adding that there was not a dry eye around as each first responder dug into their pile. “It was the perfect moment, because this guy, he needed that.”
In his spare time, Godinez has also traveled on numerous mission trips with Firefighters for Christ and other organizations, either to build something or to train the local fire departments.
“We teach them firefighting skills, brush fire fighting skills, and some low, high angle rescues, sometimes swift water rescue skills,” he said. “It’s about a week-long training. We go on our own dime, and we bring (them) a lot of tools and equipment.”
Years ago, Godinez also put that faith into action for his own as he took on the role of fire chaplain.
Though voluntary, senior fire chaplains are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and perform invocations at various ceremonies, such as memorials, weddings, hospital visits, graduations and line-of-duty death ceremonies.
“It totally took me out of my comfort zone, but it was a good thing,” he said. “I think we reached a lot of people, helped a lot of people, during that very critical, vulnerable time in their life.”
Among his many other volunteer efforts, Godinez is also a board member of the Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Association, a nonprofit dedicated to helping firefighters and their families, and is the founder of the Family Support Group, which unifies the more than 800 widows with retired and active firefighters in their time of need.
“So, when a firefighter dies, whether it’s on duty or not, we’re still there for the families,” he said. “I love this organization, (and I’m) very passionate about it.”
Godinez said he plans to continue working with the organization into retirement, as well as continuing with his duties as a chaplain.
William Wick, a captain II at LAFD, has worked with Godinez for about 20 years and was the one who brought him on as a captain in the public information office.
“In a short amount of time, (Godinez) excelled at his job, not only because of his likable personality, but his ability to communicate in a factual and engaging way,” Wick said, adding that Godinez always kept a cool demeanor on difficult calls. “I may have a higher rank, but believe me, in all regards he was definitely the senior member and leader of our station … and he was my true leader.”
Though normally Wick doesn’t go out of his way to recognize his colleagues, he said he felt it was an obligation and a duty to nominate Godinez for Firefighter of the Year.
“He asked me not to do it out of humbleness, but I don’t really listen to him anyway,” Wick added, chuckling. “(Godinez) was in it truly to help people.”
Another colleague and captain II at LAFD, Erik Scott, said he could go on and on about how amazing Godinez is.
“Capt. Godinez is truly as good as they come,” Scott said via email. “He is extremely well-versed in multiple areas on the fire ground and played a key role in many historic emergency incidents.”
Scott added that Godinez’s calm and competent disposition was not only ideal for handling stressful, emergency incidents, but also drew people to him.
“I loved working with him, and our members are very pleased that he is deservingly being awarded Firefighter of the Year,” he said.
As Godinez’s retirement and the award ceremony both fall in April, he believes there’s no better way to end his career.
“I look at the past recipients that have won this, and they’re legends on the job,” Godinez said. “You hear their name, and if you’re lucky, you’ve worked with them. … And, to now be in this same fraternity with them is just humbling to me, because I’ve never put myself in that category with them.”