Cool Under Pressure

The work Joe Martinez does for the Los Angeles County Fire Department is emblematic of countless AFSCME members: he’s never in the spotlight and he’s always under pressure while lives are on the line.

Martinez is a helicopter mechanic, a job that requires rigorous training, skill and poise. It’s a job made harder by the fact that L.A. County, with its rugged terrain, attracts outdoors enthusiasts who can easily become lost. Additionally, the terrain serves as a fertile hotspot for wildfires. That’s why the county is in constant need of air-ready helicopters.

“Whether it’s firefighting or search and rescue, the [helicopter pilots] can’t do their mission unless I do my job,” says Martinez, a member of AFSCME Local 119 (District Council 36). “They depend on us to make sure we do a good job because their lives are on the line.”

No matter what the helicopter’s mission, Martinez and his fellow mechanics must perform at the highest level every time. Whether it’s performing preventive maintenance or doing an equipment overhaul, one small oversight or mistake can have deadly consequences.

“We’re Johnny-on-the-spot,” says Martinez. “We have to be fast. When we get a call about an acre brush [fire], the pilots are out there before it turns into 10 acres. When we get a call about a missing hiker, we get there fast.”

Sometimes during fire season, Martinez and his co-workers work 24-hour, weeklong shifts, turning around helicopters as quickly as they can.

“You have to stay focused on what you’re doing. You have to take care of what’s in front of you rather than what else is out there,” says Martinez. Even when a blaze might be drawing close to his own community, he says, “I just try to concentrate on what’s happening in front of me. The fire is our mission. To fight it, I have to do the little things.”

Martinez points to the camaraderie among the helicopter pilots, mechanics, paramedics and supervisors as a bright spot that offsets the periods of intensity.

“The personnel that work here are great. I’ve never seen this before,” says Martinez. “We try to keep everything light. We make fun of each other and crack jokes. That’s how we cope.”

Even though Martinez knows he’ll never make headlines or appear on television, he still takes a lot of pride when he sees one of the helicopters on the news.

“When I see a helicopter taking down a fire, it’s a good feeling,” he says. “I say to myself, ‘I worked on that one.’”