It isn’t a panicky whine. And it isn’t frightening. The metallic voice cuts in, “Station 71. Alert … Medical Alarm … ” Malibu firefighter Dave Saltmarsh fixes his eyes on me, then hops up and dashes through the door. “I gotta go on a run,” he says. “C’mon, you wanna go?”
We’re squealing up Pacific Coast Highway, swerving through frozen midday traffic and Saltmarsh is introducing me to the crew. He couldn’t be cooler. He explains to me what a medical alert is. “It could be that someone hit their alarm, could be a motion detector went off, could be a false alarm.”
Whatever the case may be, Saltmarsh, a certified paramedic, and his five-man unit are more than ready–they are calm and confident.
Earlier this year, Saltmarsh was chosen for the Firehouse Magazine Award, an award for exceptional valor displayed while on and off duty. “Every year they [Firehouse Magazine] give out awards to guys for things they’ve done, heroic things they’ve done,” explains Saltmarsh. “A couple years back they created an award for community service–to honor guys who’ve done things for the community over the years.”
His voice is calm and humble through his thick, sandy blond mustache. He is straightforward, with tough, weathered skin and bright eyes. But his manner is kind, almost delicate. “So a couple of years back my captain nominated me and it went through. So I got the award … mostly for the work I’ve done with Children of the Night and Camp Dreamstreet.”
The nominating captain, Don Schwaiger, has since moved from Station 71, and still contends that Saltmarsh is among the best of the best. “The best patient care paramedic in the L.A. County Fire Department,” says Schwaiger, of Saltmarsh. “The most giving of his time. The absolute best and an honor to work with.”
The parade of red fire trucks blurring through a Point Dume residential community comes to a stop. A sheriff’s black-and-white has already arrived at the house, and the deputies wave off the 71st, ” … a false alarm.”
After a thorough check of the premises, and finding everything safe and in order, the guys hop back in the trucks.
As we head back toward the station, Saltmarsh explains to me the organizations he volunteers for. “Dreamstreet is a camp we’ve done for years, right here up in a Malibu, to help kids with life-threatening diseases. It’s a lot like a summer camp, but obviously the kids need a lot more attention. And because I am also a paramedic, I can sort of help out everywhere–it works out better.”
Saltmarsh, who has volunteered with Dreamstreet for more than a decade, and his partner, Susie, who is also his wife and a paramedic herself, watch the children 24 hours a day for one week straight, once a year. They supervise the children’s use of medication and make sure they get enough rest.
He explains the whole event matter-of-factly. There is no question in his mind as to whether or not he should be giving himself and his time to the children.
“And Children of the Night is an organization where they take kids that are involved in prostitution off the street and get them in a 24-hour shelter.” Saltmarsh speaks warmly of the organization. “It’s really amazing. It’s made specifically for kids who have been in prostitution. They don’t really fit in at other shelters, you know.”
Saltmarsh has done everything from searching the streets of Hollywood in the wee hours of the morning with his wife for prospective “children,” explaining the program to them, to going on speaking engagements, running fundraisers and donation campaigns.
He has helped children go through Children’s education program, processes with a social worker, through drug and alcohol rehab, back out into the world with a job and an apartment.
He stops himself to explain that his own personal heroes are Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, and Patty Grubman, who runs Dreamstreet. And he quickly defers everything–the award, the attention–to point out that all of the acclaim is only worthwhile if he can use it to create greater support for the programs.
When the Los Angeles native is pushed as to why he felt compelled to do so much for others–Did he see a painful dark side in his youth in Glendale? Did he see a loss of friends to prostitution? Did AIDS rear its head early in his life, creating the superhero mentality?–he says, “This job is only 10 days a month. I felt like I could do something to help.”
Saltmarsh also gives money to the organizations. He says he could do only that, but he sees the need to give of his self, so that he can, in a direct manner, help the organizations he respects and support the work toward their goals.
Behind his mirrored-lens Oakleys, Saltmarsh’s eyes are clear of any trace of vanity, of any hubris. His soft-spoken confidence merely reflects someone entirely at ease with himself, completely comfortable in his life.
While he is proud of the fact that he and his wife can give so much of their selves, Saltmarsh does smile and say, “Well, we work hard and we play hard.”
This summer the couple is going to Fiji, to a surf camp. “Scuba diving, surfing … it’s going to be great.” And from the sun-drenched parking lot behind Station 71, Saltmarsh laughs, “Life’s good … I’ve got a great job and I can’t complain about this setting.”