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The new guys

October 11, 2002

Mary A. Castillo

Ask any firefighter in Laguna Beach and they will tell you that

their first night in the fire house was an eye-opening experience.

"I couldn't sleep," Eng. Carl Klass admitted, even though he had

been a volunteer for two years when he joined the department in 1977.

"I was scared to death," said Eng. Dennis Marsh, who began his

career with the Lake Arrowhead Fire Department in 1981 (he joined

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Laguna in 1989). "I had first aid training and I hadn't even been on

a fire truck. But my captain told me that people expect you to do

your job and they don't know it's your first day."

Although they didn't sleep so much as a wink that first shift,

Marsh, Klass and Capt. Steve Rening knew they were hooked for life.

Now with 65 years of experience among them, they see a new breed of

firefighters -- or "probies" as they call them -- join the ranks.

"In the old days you climbed a ladder and then took a test," Klass

said. "Now in order to take the test you have to have at least an

associate's degree."

Unlike the "tailboard riders" of yesteryear, firefighters usually

have a bachelor's degree and fire academy training before they get

hired by a department. Marsh estimates that this caliber of recruits

saves a department anywhere between $25,000 and $40,000.

Rening, who followed in his father's footsteps as a Laguna

firefighter, now stresses to his own son to get his degree first and

then consider the family tradition.

"A college degree makes you a more well-rounded person," he said.

"It's paramount for any young person."

Although education is the key to get in through the door, out in

the real world it never outweighs experience.

"They come out educated but not experienced," Klass said.

"You need experience to teach the younger guys and tell them when

they shouldn't run into that burning building because by sight you

know it's coming down," Marsh clarified.

What makes being a firefighter in Laguna Beach more interesting is

that these professionals have to be masters of all trades. Unlike big

urban departments that offer specialized teams for arson, rescue and

hazardous materials, Laguna firefighters have to be ready and able to

handle any call -- delivering babies, extinguishing house fires,

cutting people out of mangled cars or sewage spills. And they're

equipped to go to any major fire in the state at any time.

"When people call 911 they expect that we're going to be there and

be able to handle any problem," Marsh said, pointing to the red

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