Pepperdine People Magazine
Pepperdine People Magazine Spring 2008
Heroes on the Line
Wildfires Showcase Talent and Dedication of a Highly Trained Public Safety Team
by Jerry Derloshon
Kiva W. Osby didn't rest much that Saturday night. Two things were on the public safety officer's mind: first, his wedding, scheduled for the following day in Pepperdine's Stauffer Chapel, and second, the howling, dry Santa Ana winds that were rattling both windows and nerves across the Southland. A red flag warning had been issued by the weather service and Osby and state and county firefighters were on alert. California's worst and most prolonged drought in decades made the winds all the more ominous. Then in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, October 21, Osby knew his wedding plans would have to be put on hold.
Blowing gusts of 60 miles per hour and greater, the Santa Ana winds tore power lines from a pole on Malibu Canyon Road. The downed lines packed 14,000-volts of electricity and sent hot sparks flying, igniting a wild fire that raced east down the side of Malibu Canyon and west toward Pepperdine University.
Fanned by fierce northeast winds, the blaze rushed toward unsuspecting homeowners including Pepperdine faculty, staff, and students who live in campus dorms and residences. Like an animal that had been too long denied of a meal, the fire feasted on acres of dry brush. People awoke to find billowing smoke and orange flames soaring 50 feet high.
Los Angeles County and the University's Public Safety Department personnel (including Osby) were hurled into action implementing a disciplined, exhaustively trained protocol. The University's Emergency Operations Committee convened to coordinate response efforts between University departments and local and state agencies. Pepperdine's public safety officers methodically relocated members of the campus community to the Firestone Fieldhouse and Tyler Campus Center. The practice of "shelter in place" is standard procedure at Pepperdine, enabling the University to safely protect and serve the community in times of crisis. To ensure delivery of messages concerning the danger, the University sent text messages, recorded phones messages, and e-mails directly to the Pepperdine community.
The high winds made the fight all the more difficult as 1,700 firefighters and 100 fire engines and helicopter and aerial tanker support attacked the blaze. Early in the assault, a landmark Malibu residence known as The Castle burned to the ground. Nearly adjacent to Pepperdine, another landmark, the Malibu Presbyterian Church, caught fire and was consumed in minutes. Several houses in the area also burned, including the home of School of Law professor Bernard James and his wife, Connie, chair of the Business Division at Seaver College.
When it was over, the Malibu Canyon Fire had consumed over 4,500 acres, destroyed several homes, and charred hillsides. It torched cars, damaged businesses, and caused the nerve-jarring evacuation of thousands of residents. Through it all, the Pepperdine campus avoided serious damage and students, faculty, and staff safely returned to their residences. Osby and his fiancée Alvina finally exchanged their vows in the early evening in West Los Angeles, much to the delight of friends and family who had traveled to Malibu from seven countries to witness the occasion.
With the memory of the Malibu Canyon Fire still fresh in everyone's mind, another night of fierce Santa Ana winds contributed to a second wildfire that broke out in Corral Canyon at 3:30 a.m., November 24. Three hundred firefighters, aided by four water-dropping helicopters, quickly attacked the fire but not before more than 20 homes in the Corral Canyon area were burned and hundreds more were threatened. Fanned by gusts registering as high as 100 miles per hour, the wind "acted like a blow torch with a hair dryer behind it," said a county fire official. The Corral Canyon Fire consumed 80 structures including more than 50 homes. Nearly 2,000 firefighters employed 138 engines, 15 helicopters, 12 tankers, and bulldozers to contain the blaze. Based on the havoc it wrought, the Corral Canyon Fire was called the most destructive fire in Malibu in nearly 15 years.
Throughout both fires, Pepperdine University's Department of Public Safety officers performed heroically under the leadership of director Earl Carpenter and deputy director Rob McKelvy. All of Pepperdine's officers are trained in CPR and first aid; many have police training and/or fire training either from the department's training program or from previous assignments. When it was needed most, the Pepperdine staff was ready. "Thanks to training assistance from multiple agencies, our officers received top quality training and executed the skills they learned perfectly," said McKelvy. "I was very proud to work next to them throughout both fire campaigns."
During the October 21 fire, Pepperdine's officers helped implement the shelter-in-place protocol, battled a structure fire at the Baxter pool house, and fought flames adjacent to the Thornton Administrative Center. They worked 12 hours on and 12 hours off conducting fire watches throughout day and night. They found and worked tirelessly to extinguish numerous spot fires. During the November 24 fire, Pepperdine's team once again was pressed into action, ensuring the safety of our campus and community.
"The personnel in our Department of Public Safety understand their critical role in responding to emergencies and they went above and beyond in the fires of October and November," noted Gary Hanson, executive vice president and head of the University's Emergency Operations Committee. "The effectiveness of the University's emergency response depends on the dedication of our people. Once again, we saw that those in Public Safety are truly committed to our students and this special place."
Here's a closer look at some members of the Pepperdine public safety staff who, along with their dedicated colleagues, put their own safety on the line during the fires.
Kiva W. Osby, 34, a sergeant and certified firefighter, dreamt of becoming a firefighter from the time he was a small boy. "It started from watching a TV show called Emergency and seeing firefighters go on large building fires in L.A. where I grew up." By the time he was about 10, his godbrother and two cousins were L.A. City and L.A. County firefighters. In 1992, he joined the L.A. County Fire Department as an explorer at Fire Station 58 west of south Los Angeles. He never mentioned that his relatives were firefighters. "I wanted to earn my own way," he says. "I worked hard, never missing a meeting, event, or drill. I never spoke unless I was spoken to. I addressed everyone as 'sir or ma'am,' I never sat down, and always, always stayed busy."
Within two weeks Osby had memorized every piece of equipment in the station and after a year, he earned a chance to attend the fire academy representing South Central L.A. "After 15 weeks I graduated and was assigned to Station 14 in the heart of South Central L.A.," he remembers. "I responded to fires, gunshot wounds, car accidents, and medical emergencies there and all around the county from Marina Del Rey to Pomona, and from Lancaster to Palos Verdes." In all, Osby amassed more than 4,000 emergency responses. He recalls his time at Station 14 as "the absolute best time of my life. I loved every second of it."
During the recent wildfires Osby and the crew linked up with other firefighting units from throughout the state to protect the campus. Looking back he said the one thing that stands out in his mind was the camaraderie among the Pepperdine staff and all the other fire crews. "Being a firefighter is like being in a special club. The respect is genuine and handshakes are true."
Like Osby, Eric Barnes, 31, desired a career in public safety from very early on in his life. "Ever since I could remember," recalls Barnes, "I have always enjoyed helping people. I knew I wanted to be a part of a law enforcement agency or a firefighter." Now a sergeant and certified firefighter, Barnes notes, "When I learned that I could do both here—be a public safety officer and firefighter—I knew Pepperdine was the place for me." The seven-year Pepperdine veteran was the on-duty watch commander on October 21 and stayed on campus for four days straight.
Matt Cartwright, 21, is an emergency medical technician (EMT) and was recently promoted to the rank of sergeant—in part due to his dedication and performance during the two fire campaigns. Like his colleagues, Cartwright traces the idea of becoming a firefighter to his youth. "When I was four, a paramedic/firefighter saved my life while I was having a seizure. Years later, my own home caught on fire and I was impressed by the professionalism of the crew. I knew at that point, I wanted to provide others with the comfort those firefighters provided me."
"One memory stands out the most," says Cartwright of the October 21 fire, "and that's how close not only the Pepperdine and Malibu communities bonded, but how close my coworkers were. We had just recently completed fire academy when the Malibu Canyon Fire started and we all felt the brotherhood and bond needed to support firefighters in such a disaster. That makes all the difference when you fight a fire because you know that the person to the left or right of you will do whatever they can to make sure you get home safe after such a disaster. Words can't explain how important that was to me."
When he thinks of those tense days protecting Pepperdine, Cartwright sees a lasting and moving image of the experience: "When Alumni Park was on fire you could see the cross on the theme tower and the flames below. It reminded me that God was right there helping me even though it seemed as if we faced the impossible."