Andrew Simpson ’07
Captain, Chino Valley Fire District
What do you do in your fire department?
I work for Chino Valley Fire District, a special district in the state that serves an area where Orange County, LA County, Riverside County and San Bernardino County meet. We’re an all-risk fire department, which means is we cover pretty much every type of emergency: urban search and rescue, structure fires, medical aids, wildland fire. Anything that you would dial 911 for, aside from crime, we come out for that.
What has been your experience with wildfire?
Every wildfire is different. I’ve been on wildland fires for 12 years now, so I’ve seen everything from just a tree or a lot on fire, to the biggest fire in state history last year, the SCU Complex Fire. That one was so big that it covered several counties, and was centered east of San Jose. That one was interesting because it was started by a whole bunch of lightning strikes, which made lots of little fires that grew into one massive fire. Being in the state park it was mostly in the middle of nowhere, affecting rural, scattered houses, but on the whole, it was very hard to access and that’s a problem with a lot of these bigger fires in remote areas.
Likewise, with the recent Dixie fire in the national forest up north, we can’t drive to most of the affected areas. So if the weather is not in our favor, with winds blowing and super dry conditions, we do all we can to steer and mitigate it, but we prioritize getting people out safely.
There’s a UC San Diego program called ALERTWildfire, a network of cameras on mountaintops to detect fire starts and progress. Have you used that at all?
I haven’t used it personally, but I can see its role with big wildland fires. They’re huge, so it’s basically like a military operation. We have a big base camp and we have divisions, known together as the FLOP—finance, logistics, operations and planning, and you can just imagine all these divisions working together to accomplish the goal. I’m typically more involved in the operations side, but something like mountaintop cameras would go into planning and logistics, where the job is more using technology to plan what resources we need, track where the fire is going, and guide our tactical operations.
Another program is UC San Diego’s WIFIRE tech and data-driven firemaps. Have you used that?
That I’m familiar with, though I didn’t know it was called WIFIRE or that UCSD was behind it, but we’ve been using firemaps for the last few years. They bring together different data points to predict what we’ll need, using things like satellites and drones to map out current heat signatures. We also have distinct apps on our cell phones now that give us live, up-to-moment maps that show where the fire is going. That was the hardest thing in the past—on the ground, we would have little idea about the full scale of these fires; we just knew our little section. And since some of these fires are thousands and thousands of acres, it’s great to have real-time updates on what the fire’s doing and where it’s going, to help us plan and get resources.
What do you remember most from your time at UC San Diego?
I actually have a fire-related story from UCSD—my first year at Warren, I was living in the dorms when the Cedar fire broke out. There were massive fires all over Southern California, but one was pretty close there in East San Diego County. I remember we were basically locked down in the dorms; I couldn’t go home because I would have had to drive through three fires to get there. So we just sheltered in place and it really looked like hell on earth. Socked in with smoke, just this red glow all around for weeks. Being locked down I got to know my roommates well, but that was something I’ll definitely remember—first year in college and all of a sudden a crazy emergency is going on all around you.
What brought you to the fire service?
I grew up with it; my dad was a firefighter. I wanted to go into medicine, so I did my degree in biology. Towards my junior and senior year, though, I changed my plans a little bit because I got into an EMT program. I did that at the same time I was in college and even started working as an EMT while I was in my senior year.
Then I went to paramedic school because I’d heard that a lot of people who did really well in medical school were already medics. That gave me experience in what can be the hardest part about the medical field—talking to people and navigating the conversation to understand what’s going on with people medically. The idea was to eventually go to medical school, but the fire service and emergency medical response started to seem like an appealing option, and after going into the fire academy, it became something that I really enjoyed.
I know many fire departments are doing more medical calls, too—it’s nice how that ties your interests together.
Right—the way fire prevention was designed, we’re already stationed in communities and we can respond to a need fast. And that’s the biggest thing in the medical field—the quicker we can get to somebody, the more likelihood they have of surviving. This community model is even growing now—things like community medicine are being discussed, sending paramedics to Physician Assistance school for example or doing more medical treatments or health care out in the field. That prospect is exciting, and the work is also really fulfilling—when someone whose life you saved comes to the station and has dinner with us with their family, you really see the difference you make.
What’s something your fellow Tritons should know about the fire service?
I think an antiquated view of the fire service as a blue-collar, low-technology kind of job. You know, putting water on fire—that’s firefighting. But it has really changed, especially in the last 3-4 years. We’re very heavy in technology like what we’ve talked about, and our services have evolved and expanded. And the more people recognize this, they realize how they can help—we’ve had companies come to us, like Apple and other big tech companies, they approach departments with ideas and programs that can have a huge impact.
So I think that’s something for UCSD alumni to know, as they earn degrees in engineering and computer science, if they see a way they could aid or have an idea to offer to the first responder services, they definitely should reach out, because it can really make a difference in our field, and for all of our communities as well.