Dedicated Merced fire captain raises bar

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMarch 18, 2013 

BEA AHBECK CASSON/bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com Merced Fire Department's Cpt. Billy Alcorn at the fire department Friday. (1-15-13)

BEA AHBECK — Merced Sun-Star

A day in the life of Merced fire Capt. Billy Alcorn is never without incident.

Whether he's making a split-second decision about entering a burning building or talking to kids about fire drills, Alcorn's job isn't dull.

It's the job the 29-year-old dreamed about since he was a boy.

Alcorn's grandfather was a fire volunteer in the 1940s and '50s, and his older sister married a firefighter.

"It was something I really wanted to be a part of," Alcorn recalled.

Now the Merced native is living his dream and giving back to the community in the process.

Despite juggling 48-hour shifts, Alcorn finds the time to teach firefighting classes at Merced College, and inspires junior and high school students as a substitute teacher.

His activities don't stop there.

Alcorn also organizes a pancake breakfast each year to raise money for youth sports and voluntarily updated the department's public education programs.

It's not part of his job description, but Alcorn does it because he's passionate about educating the community, said Merced Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin.

"He's taken the initiative to make these changes without having to be asked," McLaughlin said. "He's a leader, and that's what makes him successful as a captain."

Alcorn fills another important role -- full-time dad to three children. But that hasn't stopped him from pursuing his bachelor's degree in fire administration.

"It just shows he's dedicated to improving himself and that raises the bar," McLaughlin said.

Alcorn was hired in 2004 and promoted to one of six captain positions five years later. He's one of department's youngest captains, McLaughlin noted.

But even with all these accomplishments under his belt, Alcorn doesn't consider himself a hero.

"This is the job I have, and this is what I was hired to do," Alcorn said. "You try to give back to people who've helped you along the way."

But there have been plenty of sacrifices along the way.

Alcorn said the hardest part is missing holidays with his family and being helpless in certain situations.

"Sometimes there are things you can't do," he said. "We are called upon in the worst of the worst situations. It doesn't feel good when there's not a lot you can do."

More than fires

A misconception is that Alcorn and his engine crew -- firefighter Kevin Buccola and engineer Rich Ramirez -- only battle blazes.

In fact, they do many other things. Some days they test fire hydrants, other days they do business inspections and community outreach.

But the majority of the time they are responding to emergency medical calls, everything from strokes to car crashes.

Friday morning, Alcorn found himself helping a heart attack patient at a nearby motel. It's a job that requires thick skin and plenty of training -- more than 20 hours each month.

But the effort pays off in the end, Alcorn said. "The most rewarding part is the 'thank you' we get from people," he said. "They thank us just for doing our job."

It's a job that can be misunderstood at times. For example, the crew members pitch in their own money for meals -- $5 per person -- but some incorrectly assume the money comes from the city.

Going to the grocery store as a team puts them in a better position to respond quickly to emergencies.

The crew does nearly everything together, becoming like a second family.

"My goal is I want to become a better captain," Alcorn said. "I'm responsible for my crew at the end of the day -- making sure I'm keeping them safe so they go home at the end of our shift."

Chief McLaughlin said his department has stepped up in the past few years, especially Alcorn.

"He leads by example and treats people with respect," he said. "He has a tremendous amount of character and integrity, and represents the values of our organization."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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