Fireman in Making

Helping out by taking photos of fire is awesome, but Jackson Lemmon, 14, cannot wait to drop the camera and join the adrenaline rush of fighting fires. Beloved by both the Salinas Fire Department and Salinas Police Department, he has been part of their lives for the last two years, documenting both agencies’ work.

A couple of years ago, firefighters and police officers first started to see this kid, then barely 12, who would apparently listen to the scanner and respond to emergencies, rushing to fires and accidents on his bike. “They started to recognize me,” Lemmon says. “And I started an Instagram account and built a following.”

Soon, his pictures got featured on agencies’ official social media accounts and before he knew it, Lemmon started getting invitations for other occasions, like promotions within agencies, a sign they’d started to really rely on him.

“We joke that Jackson is our internal PIO,” says Salinas Fire Chief Michele Vaughn, a firefighter with 22 years of experience (a PIO is a Public Information Officer). She met Lemmon “a few years back,” she says. His mother used to bring him for station visits and early on he demonstrated affinity for firefighting apparatus. “It was cool to watch him grow up. At some point, he started to ride on his bike to the scenes, helping us to tell the story,” Vaughn says.

Around Easter of 2021, however, Lemmon’s bike was stolen. “It happened within five minutes. Whoever this person was, they left their [very shabby] bike, so…I guess it was a trade,” he says, bitterly but not without humor. The family reported the theft and a police officer came to take a report. “Then he came again and talked to my mom in private, so I knew there was something going on,” Lemmon says.

It turned out that local firefighters and police oficers decided Lemmon’s bicycle-based services are indispensable, and they’d decided to replace his means of transportation. “He is a very sharp, intelligent young man,” Vaughn says, calling his work “very constructive.” (Before you clap for the happy ending, know that Lemmon is still waiting for his new bike, because of the difficulties with the supply chain.)

No wonder there is debate in Salinas as to which agency Lemmon will eventually join, but it sounds that the decision is made. In fact, it was made a long time ago. Always asking his mom or grandma to take him to the fire station, he was one of those kids super into fire trucks. Like many firefighters, Lemmon enjoys the energy of fire, but that’s not what attracts him to the job, he says.

“It’s about the bonding,” he says. “A team is a big family; firemen really get to know each other because shifts can be 48 hours long, and there’s a sense of community. There is so much happening in the fire station behind the scenes: They eat together, have a good time, do paperwork.”

Sound fun? Well, maybe not the paperwork.

Anybody can become a firefighter, Vaughn says—“Anybody who really desires it and has good lungs,” she corrects herself. And they do need people like Lemmon, “a local, homegrown kid,” Vaughn adds.

Requirements for the job are pretty minimal and they start with being 18, having a high school diploma and a driver’s license.

“I know about a 10-year-old girl in Salinas who aspires to become a firefighter,” Vaughn says. “She comes a lot to the old Station 6.” Gender stopped being an issue a long time ago. In California, women and minorities filled fire stations decades ago, Vaughn says, and at some point she worked with 13 other firewomen in Salinas.

“There is a joy of being in action,” Lemmon says. “There’s an adrenaline rush and it’s fascinating how an emergency action is being run. And, you know, helping people and maybe saving lives is awesome.”

When told that despite the fire vs. police battle, Lemmon’s heart is set on Salinas Fire, Vaughn smiles with delight: “It will be quite an honor. He’s ours.”

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