Greg Cooper recalls watching Santa Claus hand out candy canes from the back of a fire engine when he was a boy and thinking only about how lucky the firefighters were to hang out with him.
Now as a paramedic/firefighter with the for more than a decade, he realizes how lucky he is to have his dream job.
The fire department enables Cooper, 48, to give back to the community in numerous ways by helping people when they are most stressed out through response calls and volunteer work.
He remembers the first call he responded to and the experiences that 13 years on the job have given him thus far.
Mountain View Patch: Do you live in Mountain View?
Greg Cooper: I don’t. I live in the East Bay out in Contra Costa.
Patch: How did you get the job with the Mountain View Fire Department?
Cooper: I was actually living in Mountain View...I had just gotten hired at Burlingame Fire Department, so I was working for AMR in this county. I knew Mountain View. I was actively trying to get hired at that point, and I was hoping that Mountain View would actually be the city that offered a position. I was offered a position at Burlingame first and while I was going through their academy, Mountain View called and said we got a position for you, so that’s how I ended up here.
Since then, I met my wife and lived in Santa Cruz for a bit. Sold our place down there and then decided to move to East Bay. It’s a little bit more affordable.
Patch: How long have you been with the Mountain View Fire Department?
Cooper: Thirteen years.
Patch: What is your job title?
Patch: What is an average day at work for you entail?
Cooper: Oh jeez. Well, so we have a firefighter, an engineer and a captain on an engine. And so, we will get up first thing in the morning. Firefighter pretty much has all the house duties, cleaning and that sort of stuff. As a paramedic, we’re responsible for checking out all the paramedic equipment, as well. Engineer takes care of the apparatus. And the captain is going through emails, checking reports and communication with the battalion chief. Then from that point on, we usually have a training calendar set up for the entire month. It will have all of our training that is coming up, inspections, everything that we need to do is pretty much all laid out for us. And then on top of that, calls come in and we run those calls and then we’re done. We go back to what we were doing before, so it’s pretty busy.
Patch: How long is a shift?
Cooper: Forty-eight hours. So we work a 56-hour workweek and that’s broken up. We’re on for 48 hours and then we’re off for 96 and then back on for 48.
Patch: Does that leave you with a lot of time to spend with your family?
Cooper: It does. I mean there’s a trade-off. When I’m gone for 48, the kids (seven and nine years old) start getting a little unruly at home, but yeah it’s hard. Because like today, I missed their first day of school, so I miss stuff like that. You know baseball games; I know that I will miss at minimum a third of their season, just because I’m here that whole time. But we try to make up for it during the time that I’m home. It’s a good family schedule, but you do miss a fair amount.
Patch: Does your family ever worry about you when you are at work?
Cooper: You know what, when I first got hired, I think my wife (of 11 years) was a little worried. I think that is probably pretty normal, but after you have been doing it for awhile, I think the worry is there, but it’s not as forefront as it was in the beginning.
The department is great. The personnel here are awesome, and we are very safe at what we do.
Patch: What’s the worst fire you have ever responded to?
Cooper: Let’s see, we had one on Montecito … it was a small apartment building. I think there were four units inside. We got the call that it was kind of a room and contents fire – so within an apartment or a house you know a fire is going to start somewhere, you know in the living room or something like that and what will happen is the fire will spread and our objective is to try to mitigate the fire at that source, so we call it room and contents. As long as we can confine it to the room, it’s a successful fire – but we had gotten the call late I believe on that fire, got there and by time we got there, we were in the apartment looking for fire spread and by that time it gone over all of us in the attic and we didn’t know. So we got up there, we punched a few holes in the attic, saw the fire going all the way through and by the time we came back down the whole roof had pretty much gone up, as well.
One of the engineers on team got a real quick picture of it. It’s pretty impressive when you see it. You don’t realize what’s happening and then you see the picture and you’re like wow.
Patch: Was anyone hurt in the fire?
Cooper: Nobody was hurt.
Patch: How long was the training period for your job?
Cooper: Once we are offered the position, we have a 12-week, I think it was a 12-week academy. Then after we get out of the academy, we are on line, but we are still being trained on probation for 18 months, so it’s a pretty good amount of time. We have tests at six months and at 12 months and then that last three is really about getting qualified to drive the engine. Once you are done there, you are actually on line as soon as you pass everything, so it’s quite lengthy, pretty intense.
Patch: What do you like most about your job?
Cooper: I like responding to the calls. When I first started, I didn’t have the desire to be a paramedic. It was really just to be a firefighter, and so when I was taking my classes, one of the instructors said you know if you really want to up your chances of getting hired you really need to become a paramedic. So I became a paramedic and found that that is a really satisfying part of the job, knowing that you can walk into somebody’s house, that they are stressed, worried, concerned about whatever they are dealing with and that you can kind of walk up and say 'what we’re here, we’re going to take care of you' and you kind of see that stress start to leave them. That’s probably the best part of the job.
Patch: What is your least favorite part of the job? Or is there anything?
Cooper: No. You know what, the job is great. It’s a great job. The hardest part is time away from family without a doubt.
Patch: The first time you were called to a fire what were you feeling?
Cooper: I think it was on Walker [Drive]–I mean you kind of remember your first fire....When a fire comes in they respond a whole bunch of apparatus, so three engines and everybody has an assignment before they get there to kind of know what they are doing, so our assignment was water supply, and it just so happened that the hydrant was pretty far away from the fire, so my engine pulled up, they dropped me off, I grabbed the hose, hooked up and you have to sit there and wait until they call for opening the hydrant to get water to the engine. And I remember it felt like forever. I was sitting there waiting, waiting, waiting, and then they finally called for water. I opened up the hydrant and I just sprinted. I had full gear on–you know we got like 80 pounds worth of gear on–so I’m running down the sidewalk and we got there, the crew was inside, the place was fully going. Gosh, I don’t remember much beyond that. I mean we already had crews going inside to put the fire out, and so we got there and it was just the coolest thing in the world because you are kind of doing what you had wanted to do ever since you wanted to become a firefighter.
Patch: Was there any fear the first time?
Cooper: You know what, I think there is a little bit because you don’t know what to expect. You have all this gear on, you know that you’re protected, but you’re still kind of going 'I’m walking into a fire' which is kind of crazy, but you know what, after you go in a few times and you realize there is a significant amount of heat, but you’re not feeling it, you go 'okay I think I can do this.' So you go in, you got the hose and you start dropping water and the fire goes out. It’s a lot of fun.
Patch: How long have you wanted to be a firefighter?
Cooper: Since I was a little.
Patch: Is that all you ever wanted to do?
Cooper: Well, I wanted to play baseball, so I went to college and played ball. I went to (Sacramento City College), because I grew up in Sacramento…I played ball there for a few years, I hurt my arm, so right after that I jumped right into college and I knew that I wanted to go after a career in the fire service.
I remember when I was little at Christmas time...there was a firehouse that was right down the street, and they would come around with their ladder truck and they would be play Christmas music over their loud speakers. You could hear them coming. So they drive down the street, and we would always run outside and wait because they had Santa Claus on the back of the truck. So Santa Claus would wave and hand out candy canes, and I thought how cool is it those guys get to work with Santa Claus.
Patch: You have two sons, seven and nine, do they want to be firefighters?
Cooper: They bounce back and forth. My oldest one says he wants to be a police officer…and my little one says he wants to be a firefighter.
Patch: How do you feel about that?
Cooper: I’m okay with that.
Patch: What about the danger surrounding the jobs?
Cooper: With police officers, I have a ton of admiration for them. They go out there…those folks are out there by themselves quite a bit. They call for backup and they are good about taking care of one another, but initially they could be out there by themselves.
With me, I always have at least two other people with me, so that fear factor isn’t as significant. It really isn’t, so yeah, I totally recommend it.
Patch: Have you ever been hurt while on the job?
Cooper: Yeah. Not as bad as some folks. We have a guy, he’s got a pretty significant injury and we are not sure if he is going to be able to return or not. And he has been in a relatively short amount of time, so that is somebody who to this point has built their entire career with the hopes of being here for 30 years, and now all of the sudden, four or five years in, is finding that it’s not going to happen. It’s like starting over at that age and that would be hard.
Patch: What was your most serious injury?
Cooper: You know what, I don’t know if they have been tremendously serious. I have has surgery on both shoulders and a knee, but those are pretty common I think. It’s because of the nature of the work, so we have a lot of folks who have sort of been through the same thing.
Patch: Do you ever worried about being seriously injured?
Cooper: I do, but from the standpoint of what would happen if I couldn’t work. How would I provide for my family? I guess you do what anyone else would; you go back to school and try to find something else.
Patch: Are you involved in any volunteer work?
Cooper: I spend a third of my time living here in Mountain View, and through our union we do quite a bit of volunteer work. We have a fund that we established, called the Create A Smile Fund. All of the firefighters contribute to it out of their check, every paycheck. We also have outside donations. And we take that fund, and we have left it pretty liberal as far as what we can do with it, but we’ve gone into… you know after a structure fire when someone just lost all of their furniture and we have donated money to buy furniture, to buy food, clothes. We come across people in the community that could use help in some way or another, and if we can do it, then we will jump in and do it.
Patch: Many people see firefighters as heroes, who is your hero?
Cooper: I don’t know that I would say I have a single hero. I think the hardest thing to do these days is to stand up for values. I think you have a society that’s pretty mixed on what they believe, and I think when somebody takes a position that maybe goes against the grain and they are willing to stand firm on that I think that is pretty admirable. I don’t if you see a lot of that anymore, so when I see somebody do that I think they are somebody that I look up to. They are standing firm in a time when it would just be easy to walk and go in a different direction.
Patch: Do you consider yourself a hero?
Cooper: I see it as this is what I want to do, because I think most folks that come into this position they do it because they want to be able to make a difference. I don’t see it as a hero. I think by nature of our job we go into areas that a lot of people wouldn’t, but we signed up with that foreknowledge, so it’s just part of the job, but like I said the best part is knowing that you have gone in and you made a difference and it’s been a positive impact on somebody’s life. So the hero thing doesn’t really come up.
Patch: You were involved in Leadership Mountain View, why did you decide to participate?
Cooper: We started sending folks to from the fire department probably three or four years ago and it’s an extremely valuable program. You get to know folks within the community; you get to meet a lot of people and network…Last time it was my turn, and so we try to get somebody in every class because it is that important.
Patch: How would you describe Leadership Mountain View?
Cooper: You get together, you meet one day a month for nine months and what you’re doing is you are going through different areas of Mountain View and you are learning quite a bit about say the school system, about local government, about volunteer organizations. What you’re doing is you’re getting a view of Mountain View from a bunch of different angles and you’re meeting a lot of people that are key players in those areas.
So what it did for me is it gave me a greater appreciation for the city. One of the things I didn’t know about, and I have been here for 13 years, is they have a program called which is free medical care for people who live here but can’t afford health insurance and they run that over beneath El Camino Hospital…We come across people in the street that need medical assistance but won’t go to the hospital because they say they can’t afford it, well now we have some place that we can refer them to.
Patch: When you entered Leadership Mountain View, what were you hoping to get out of it?
Cooper: When I first started, I had not idea. I went in with a pretty open mind, not having any expectations because I didn’t know a lot about the program. When you think of the title, you think you are going in to learn leadership skills. You are learning leadership skills, but what I found was more beneficial to me were the people that were in there and the relationships that were made.
At the end of the year, you have a project that you have to do, and the project is having some sort of impact somewhere and you have to put a project together. So it was really neat to see all the different projects that people were doing and how they were coming together and I think really the message of the whole project was you can make an impact. You don’t need a ton of people, but everything has to start somewhere. You just have to be willing to start.
Patch: What was your final project?
Cooper: The (Mountain View) Senior Center has a regular program where people can come in once or twice a month and they can get supplemental food. Not so much your main staples, but more food on the periphery. Vegetables, fruits, box foods and that sort of stuff. So what we did is we did a Christmas dinner. Where we went out and had turkey and all the trimmings, and everything is bagged, so when they came in on that day to get the normal food that they get they had a Christmas dinner waiting for them. We fed about 400 people.
That was one of my personal projects and one where I pulled in the firefighters, so we went down and we have a relationship with Nob Hill Foods and went down and picked up all the food they ordered for us and brought it back to the fire station. We broke it all apart and bagged everything, and then we carried it all over to the Senior Center. It was nice because I had a number of our Leadership Mountain View folks show up...I know that happened with a number of the other projects too where people showed up and jumped in to help out anyway that they could.