by Sheila Sanchez
Santa Cruz County Fire Department volunteer Captain Arnie Wernick of South Skyline Fire and Rescue Company 29, officially retired Nov. 1 after three-decades-plus of noble service to the Santa Cruz mountain communities.
Wernick's duties included commanding incidents, training and representing South Skyline Fire and Rescue Company 29,working out of the Las Cumbres and Saratoga Gap stations off Highway 35 in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The Los Gatos resident was responsible for creating a welcoming environment for volunteers in which they could grow personally and professionally as they became full-fledged firefighters capable of responding effectively to incidents. Many of the younger volunteers continue on to become career firefighters with Cal Fireand other local fire departments.
South Skyline Fire and Rescue Company 29 is one of five volunteer companies included in the Santa Cruz County Fire Department, which contracts with Cal Fire to administer the overall program. The volunteers train to the same level and respond jointly with paid Cal Fire personnel, Wernick explained
"The time has gone so fast. I will miss the action but I am not leaving the fire service altogether," he said, adding that he will continue his position as the 5th District Representative to the Santa Cruz County Fire Department Advisory Commission.
The volunteer job entailed many hours of service each week, typically at least a few hundred hours per year, he said.
To give an idea of the level of commitment required to serve, Wernick said new volunteers' required training is now 200-plus hours and must be completed before a volunteer can respond to an incident. This includes several consecutive weekends to complete the Basic Fire Academy and then at least a few more to get the initial First Responder or EMT certification.
"The training and support provided by Cal Fire is superb. They are some of the finest people I've had the privilege to work with," he said.
Ongoing training for everyone involves weekend classes a few times per year, approximately eight hours per month of on-site training at the company level and between two and four hours of online training in addition to performing equipment checks and responding to calls when you are around, he said.
The real test for the training is applying it at calls, he said.
Most calls are medical and rescue in nature but we always seem to have a few serious fires every year as well, he said.
"Overall, the skills and experience you can get as a volunteer help in all areas of life while providing a critical service to the local community," he said. "For those of us who do it we consider it fun in a personally satisfying way.”
When he's not fighting fires or doing emergency rescues, Wernick works as a systems and software engineer in biotech. He also does patent and IP consulting.
Scariest assignment? "No particular assignment has been really scary in that sense, partly owing to luck and mostly because we are well trained and avoid taking unnecessary risks."
The most exciting assignment he remembers is a 100-feet vertical rescue he was responsible for at Castle Rock Falls.
It was summertime and there was no water, he recounted. The popular climbing area sees firefighters rescuing people there every year.
In the incident, the patient had broken his ankle and had been lowered into a ravine below the falls by his climbing partner.
Wernick set up all the rigging, main line, belay line, pulleys, carabiners, prusiks. A team of several people hauled up the patient in a "stokes" litter with a medic attached to take care of the patient on the way up. "This was probably around 500 pounds of weight on the other end of the rope," he explained.
Once the patient was up, firefighters flew him out in a helicopter, used quite often in remote areas.
Asked about the future of South Skyline Fire and Rescue Company 29, Wernick said: “I am handing over the reins to Andy Seigel who will be taking over as captain of the most committed and best trained team we have ever had.”