Ask Folsom Fire Chief Felipe Rodriguez which passage from Scripture inspires his life and he cites John 15:13 without hesitation: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“As a firefighter, one of the great loves you can have is to be willing to lay down your life for your friends,” says the affable Felipe, 45, who has served as fire chief since June 2017. “When you are willing to do so, no questions asked, that’s what truly makes a firefighter – someone who is selflessly willing to put it out there for someone else who they may not even know.
“No matter what people call for when they dial 911, we go. Medical emergencies, wildfires, hazardous materials, drownings or helping others when they are in need. You never know what you are walking into, who you are going to come across…but we are always there for people.”
On a wintery day in his office at Folsom Fire Station 35 on Glenn Drive, Felipe speaks with ease and enthusiasm about serving a diverse suburban community of more than 77,000 residents.
“Living in and serving in diverse communities is what I’ve always experienced,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing. We come from different backgrounds and we are all individuals, we are all people. It doesn’t matter to me what they look like, where they are from or what gender they are, what race they are. None of that matters to me. They are all people – they all have feelings, they all laugh, they all smile, they all hurt.”
Felipe was born and raised Catholic in the upper Mission area of San Francisco, the second oldest of four children. He attended Longfellow Elementary School, Aptos Middle School and Lowell High School in the city, and when his family moved to San Mateo, he graduated from Burlingame High School.
He has fond memories of Christmas when he was seven or eight years old. The firefighters at Station 15 in San Francisco provided toys to families in need, including his own. The kindness they showed his family still sticks with him.
“My mom took us over to the fire station to sign up for some toys and I remember meeting the firefighters and being in awe,” he says. “What an amazing thing they were doing. I didn’t realize at the time that it was for my Christmas present. When I opened up my gift on Christmas morning it was a football. Around that time I told myself, when I grow up this is what I want to do. I want to help people and I want to do things like this for others. I followed my dream.”
Growing up, his maternal grandfather, Rosendo Alvarez, taught him significant lessons. Rosendo was a bracero in the 1940s to the 1960s, traveling by train from Mexico to work for nine months out of each year in California’s agricultural fields. “His example taught me as a young man to work hard, and to take advantage of every opportunity that is given to you and never pass it up,” Felipe says. “I’ve always followed his advice and applied it to my life and it’s definitely paid off.”
Despite some obstacles along the way, Felipe fulfilled his dream of becoming a firefighter. After high school, he moved to the eastern part of Sacramento County and attended Folsom Lake College. He began his professional career when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1994, where he was trained as a hospital corpsman. While serving as a Navy reservist for nine years, Felipe was activated following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He was deployed for eight months to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as medical personnel in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
He served as a firefighter, firefighter paramedic and fire captain for the City of Stockton Fire Department from 1999 to 2012. The diverse types of emergencies he responded to prepared him to develop as a field commander. He joined the City of Oceanside Fire Department in 2012, serving as a battalion chief, fire marshal and division chief. While assigned as chief officer, he responded to several campaign wildland fires throughout the state and was qualified as a strike team leader.
Felipe earned a master’s degree in Emergency Services Administration and a bachelor’s degree in Occupational Studies, both from California State University, Long Beach. He is currently enrolled in the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program.
As fire chief, he oversees the Folsom Fire Department’s $18 million budget and 71 employees in four fire stations, with a fifth station projected to open in the fall of 2018. Operations include fire suppression, rescue, emergency medical services, prevention, public education and hazardous materials response.
Felipe stresses partnering with the community to provide the best services for residents, business owners and visitors. The fire department has a strong and proud heritage, reaching back to the Gold Rush era of March 3, 1857, when a group of citizens formed the Folsom Hook and Ladder Company to protect the wooden buildings comprising Old Town Folsom. “Many of our original buildings are still present in our Historic Folsom district,” he notes. “Our department maintains the same traditions of selflessly serving our community that our city’s first firefighters had.”
The priorities are mission, members and community. He notes that firefighters vow to protect: making service their highest focus; coming to aid quickly and performing skillfully; being professional and always acting with integrity; treating all with dignity; being safe in attitude and action; and taking care of each other.
When someone dials 911, the goal is “to be at the front door of someone’s home in six minutes,” Felipe notes. “A minute to process the call, a minute to get out of the fire station and four minutes to drive there. That is the national standard and that is our goal 90 percent of the time.”
“We can’t do this job alone,” he says. He dedicates himself to being at community events and outreach to schools, businesses, community and faith-based organizations and churches to talk about fire safety, natural disaster preparedness and ways that organizations can partner with the fire department. A key program is Citizens Assisting Public Safety (CAPS), where volunteers who complete an 11-week Citizens Academy assist the Police and Fire Departments with various functions.
Felipe views challenges such as emergency response and disaster preparedness “as synonymous with opportunity. When I see a challenge come my way, I figure it’s an opportunity to partner with our community for public education and awareness.”
One way his Catholic faith plays a role in his work as a fire chief is as a reminder to treat each person he encounters with respect, dignity and kindness. “My values and how I treat others come from my faith,” he says. “And I respect others no matter what their faith may be. There’s so many different people whose beliefs point to something greater than themselves. That’s what faith is – believing in something you can’t see, something greater than yourself.
“What I try to do is apply my values and beliefs to create a greater good for others. That’s the most important part. It’s all about serving other people in an altruistic way, putting others before yourself.”
Since arriving in Folsom, Felipe and his wife, Tracy, have been attending Mass at a few local parishes. They have five children ranging in age from six to 25. He says his children have always enjoyed visiting him at his job site. “All they’ve ever known is their dad as firefighter,” he says. “They tell their friends, not to brag about it, but there is a sense of pride in it for a child. And, of course, they like to sit in the fire engines!”
Reflecting on his almost 19 years as a firefighter, Felipe says he has never regretted the path he chose early on in his life. “I didn’t know this as a child, but as the years have gone by in this profession, you realize it is a very rewarding job to help others when they are in need,” he concludes. “Maybe it is the worst day of their life and you are there to try and help, improve things and make their day better.”
When a wildfire or other natural disaster strikes, you can be ready
Because thousands of wildfires strike California every year, it’s best to be prepared beforehand, says Fire Chief Felipe.
The main threat to Folsom and surrounding areas comes from wildfires. Folsom Lake, Lake Natoma and the American River bound the city and residents cherish the more than 45 miles of paved bike/pedestrian trails, showcasing some of the city’s natural assets as they meander through open space, lush woodlands, wildlife habitats, and along creeks and streams.
“This is a distinctive and beautiful city and one of the worst things we could do is mow it all down and have a big parking lot,” he says. “We want trees, trails, rivers, streams and the natural beauty we enjoy every day. But we also have to be safe when we do have homes near our open spaces and tree-lined areas, to make sure there is a 30-foot clearance of dry vegetation around homes.”
One of Felipe’s main messages is for each resident or household in the community to prepare in advance an emergency kit and plan, in case a natural disaster or other emergency would have you away from home for 72 hours.
“Each person needs to be prepared, especially in the first 72 hours -- whether it be a power outage, earthquake, flood or wildfire,” he notes. “Some of the basics are to have already packed a change of clothes, toiletries, medications, bottled water and canned foods, and a can opener. Have a plan for your family where they can meet at another location near your home if you don’t have any way of communicating.”
As a firefighter for the cities of Stockton and Oceanside, Felipe was often called to be a strike team leader at large wildfires. “I responded to several wildfires each year, from several thousand to tens or hundreds thousands of acres, with thousands of firefighters working together. We are fortunate to be in a state that is one of the world’s leaders regarding firefights in wildlands, so you learn from some of the best and experienced people.
“I’m humble enough to know that I don’t know it all and I’m going to listen and learn. That’s important – others pass on the knowledge they’ve learned throughout the decades to those of us still learning, then we pass it on to those who follow us.”
Felipe says residents need to obey evacuation orders and take them seriously. When a mandatory evacuation is ordered, “it’s time to go and steer clear of the area until residents are allowed back in,” he adds. “That is for the safety of both residents and firefighters. If we know areas are evacuated, we can work in a coordinated effort to suppress the fire as our priority, instead of focusing on evacuating the people while we are trying to fight the fire.”
Cover photography by Jose Velasquez
To view the digital edition of the May-June Catholic Herald magazine, visit http://faithdigital.org/Sacramento/CH0518/