Labor Day: Orange County’s Toughest Jobs and the People Who Do Them

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

You can feel the heat of the flames in the helicopter, which sometimes flies as low as 50 feet.

Workers in Orange County are on the job, no matter how hard, whether they’re hovering in a helicopter above this summer’s Holy Fire or handling bucket after bucket of grimy plastic bottles.

This Labor Day weekend, here’s a look at who does some of the county’s toughest occupations and what it takes to get the job done.

Fighting Fire from Above

Karim Slate of Oceanside, 66, fire pilot, Orange County Fire Authority

Key responsibilities: As soon as a brush fire is reported, Slate flies a Bell 412EP twin-engine helicopter to the site to make an assessment. If the fire warrants an air response, he drops 365 gallons of water at a time from storage tanks underneath the aircraft and then refills and returns for more drops, making 78 runs during a recent shift fighting this summer’s Holy Fire in eastern Orange County.

Challenges: You can feel the heat of the flames in the helicopter, which sometimes flies as low as 50 feet. The trick is to drop the water along the edge of the fire’s perimeter, creating a wet border to assist firefighters on the ground approaching with hoses. Also, flying in the dark is tricky because night vision goggles can improve visibility but sometimes there’s just too much smoke to see, forcing Slate to depend on his instruments alone to navigate.

What you might not realize: At a busy scene such as this year’s Holy Fire, Slate’s helicopter might be one of a dozen aircraft in a small space, including other helicopters and fixed-wing planes. One of Slate’s key jobs is coordinating with the other pilots to avoid collision.

Slate: “Having fought fire since I was a young man, the minute I saw it (the Holy Fire), I said, ‘this one’s gone.’ I knew it was going to burn out the entire Trabuco Canyon.”


Bottles, Cans and Bees

Brisa Garcia of Santa Ana, 22, weight master, OC Recycling in Santa Ana

Key responsibilities: Garcia greets customers and weighs the waste-high buckets of plastic, glass, metals or cans that people bring in and then dumps them in bins or a conveyor belt depending on the type of recyclable. “I stopped going to the gym as much because this is a real workout.” She also drives a forklift to help customers move heavy items, such as washing machines, and explains to customers how to separate items and adhere to recycling laws.

Who are her customers? She serves everyone from people who earn their living recycling to homeless people with cans and bottles to the environmentally fervent.

The ick factor: Dumping buckets of cans and soda bottles sometimes results in dirty water sloshing down her arm and neck. Winged cockroaches have flown at her and bees have stung her.

What you may not realize: She is attending community college and hopes to become an elementary school teacher.

Garcia: “This grungy stuff is good training for messy kids.”


Iron Man

Gabriel Lara of Santa Ana, 32, ironworker apprentice, Field Ironworkers Apprenticeship and Training Program, La Palma

Key responsibilities: As an apprentice, Lara works in construction on a 12-week cycle and then attends classes for a week before returning to the job. His work centers around heavy steel rods called rebar, which are placed in concrete to reinforce structures in the way a skeleton undergirds the body. His job involves bending and cutting rebar through welding, a chop saw or a cutting torch, then placing it in position and fastening it with wire before concrete is poured.

What’s grueling: The average iron worker might lift and carry a total of 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of rebar on his shoulder during one day.

What you may not realize: Getting Lara’s certification to be a journeyman iron worker will take four years in all and requires study, homework assignments and passing tests. It also requires math.

Lara: “I can’t see myself sitting in an office. I love the satisfaction of earning my money, providing for my family. Before this, I was not living a good life…. Now I actually love my job.”


Eye of the Storm

Sameeha Jabbar of Anaheim, 38, clinical social worker with the Orange County Health Care Agency’s Crisis Assessment Team (CAT)

Key responsibilities: Jabbar is called to mental health emergencies twice a shift on average – normally when someone is a threat to himself or others or refusing to take meds, eat or leave his room for extended periods. Police go in first and if it’s safe, Jabbar enters a home or scene, introducing herself, building trust, and making a risk assessment. She uses active listening and other strategies to stabilize a person and arranges for mental health treatment and medical care if necessary. She always goes back to see a client the next day.

Tough moments: Talking to a woman suffering from paranoia through a bathroom door for an hour and a half to persuade her to come out was a tough day. “There’s a lot of talking. People talk about their medical conditions, child abuse, their marriage… You walk out with a heavy heart and you think, I wish this person was okay.”

People she’s helped: Her clients include a young man whom police originally found on a highway threatening to jump. Once police took him to a safe location, her work began. Though he told Jabbar, “Let me die,” she offered him a reason to live, arranging for him to get treatment. When she went to visit him several days later, he was taking his meds and planning to visit his parents and get a job. That day, she recalls, “I felt like I won a million dollars.”

Jabbar: “Every day you get to help someone. You get to save someone.”


Driving an “Armed” Truck

Urbano Viramontes of Santa Ana, 47, route driver, Republic Services in Anaheim

Key responsibilities: Viramontes begins making the rounds of Yorba Linda streets at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday, driving a 30-foot truck that weighs 27 tons when loaded and operating a special arm that extends from his vehicle to grab and dump the curbside containers. His shifts can last until 6 p.m.

Interesting facts: Viramontes collects from about 1300 houses in a shift, about three houses a minute. He drives on the right side of the cab, which has a camera showing the contents of the truck and what’s behind him. He climbs in and out of the truck an estimated 20 times in a day due to containers that are overfilled or placed too close to cars.

What might surprise you: One source of stress on the job is people in a rush or sleep-induced daze, particularly in the morning when kids and workers are running in and around their cars, not paying attention. Or customers dash out of the house to throw something in their curbside container without realizing that the truck arm is about to secure the container. One key to the job, Viramontes says, is to stay calm and take pride in your work. The downside of the job is “time away from family.”

Viramontes: “You have to have ‘ganas’ (desire) to work. I’m proud to work in a company like Republic. I try to apply their 5 Rs every day – respectful, responsible, reliable, resourceful, relentless – so that Republic will be proud of me.”


Heat of the Moment

Magaly Garcia of Santa Ana, 48, baker at OC Baking Company in Orange

Key responsibilities: Working six days a week, Garcia supervises the baking of bread once it’s been mixed, shaped and set out to “mature.” She presides over eight large rack ovens in a room that sometimes reaches 105 degrees. She relies on an automatic bread loader and remover in most cases but still wields an old-fashioned baking peel, a shovel-like tool with a long handle, to manually extract loaves of bread from a hearth.

Fun fact: She can bake as many as 15,000 pieces of bread in one night. She also keeps count of how many pieces of bread were baked according to type, including baguettes, brioches, hamburger buns and dinner rolls.

Garcia: “The toughest thing was getting used to the heat, but now I’m used to it. I enjoy my job. I don’t get tired.”


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