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East Bay firefighter crosses border to share skills, needed resources

Firefighters often join the profession because of a drive to serve others, a drive that rarely lies dormant once the shift ends at the firehouse.

For Erik Falkenstrom, his drive to serve has taken an international dimension.

Falkenstrom, a training captain with the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, took his family to Mexico on vacation in 2016 and checked out the fire stations in the area. He was shocked at the lack of personal protective equipment provided for the crews, and stunned at the poor condition of the equipment that was on hand.

Falkenstrom said:

“I realized that not everyone is as fortunate as we are. … I wanted to get involved, pay it forward and set an example for my kids.”

As soon as he got home, Falkenstrom contacted Firefighters Crossing Borders, a nonprofit founded in 2000 by a firefighter from Washington state. The organization’s stated goal is “to bring advanced training, equipment and vehicles to departments desiring assistance throughout Mexico.”

Falkenstrom got to work immediately. As an FFCB member, he put out a call to the nine stations in his fire district, requesting used turnout gear that he planned to package and forward to Mexico.

Courtesy San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District Erik Falkenstrom trains not only firefighters but also the district search dogs, including Leslie, shown here with the captain. “Her main duty is to locate human scent in disasters,” Falkenstrom said. (Photo courtesy San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District)

Falkenstrom said:

“A lot of times, retirees give up their gear. Or, when our gear goes out of service after its 10-year life, it is still in very good condition.”  

He added:

“Instead of tossing it all in the dumpster, the firefighters sent their used gear to me.”

Falkenstrom coordinates one of several collection points on the West Coast. The captain stores the collected gear and equipment at his home and packages and ships the items to the Mexican border on behalf of FFCB. The nonprofit has a contract with the Mexican government, which directs the shipment to whichever state is being provided the goods.

But Falkenstrom’s activism does not stop there.

Once a year, using his own money and his district vacation time, he travels to Mexico to conduct a training session as a representative of FFCB Region 2, which includes the states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima and Sinaloa — areas often associated with Mexican drug cartels.

While he acknowledges those are not the safest places to travel, he said:

“But we’re there trying to help the local people, who don’t have much. We’ve never had a single issue.”

In 2019, Falkenstrom helped conduct a three-day Nayarit Training Symposium, which covered live fire attack, auto extrication and hazardous materials management for more than 120,000 attendees.

Emphasizing how the local folks still try to make a difference with very little, he said:

“Firefighters showed up in jeans, tennis shoes and T-shirts.” 

Brian Singleton, FFCB director of Region 2, shared a positive outcome of the training session, recalling:

“We taught a class on self-contained breathing apparatus. …. Four days later, a crew responded to a fire, used the SCBA and rescued a man who had collapsed in the building.”

Courtesy of Erik Falkenstrom Firefighters pose at the conclusion of the 2019 Nayarit Training Symposium in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Erik Falkenstrom)

Singleton said that hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, engines and ambulances have been donated to the nonprofit for Mexico, but as the collections grow larger, so do the logistics.

He said:

“Our greatest challenge is getting financing to deliver more and more equipment to the border.” 

San Ramon Valley Fire Chief Paige Meyer said:

“The district and its board of directors are completely supportive of the work Erik is doing with Firefighters Crossing Borders. … Anytime we can do something to improve safety and help other fire agencies, we’ll do it.”

Firefighters Crossing Borders is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and accepts donations at its website.


This story was first published as part of the Inspire Me series on LocalNewsMatters.org, an affiliated nonprofit site supported by Bay City News Foundation.

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