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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 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, a training captain with the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, took his family to Mexico on vacation in 2016 and he 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.

“I realized that not everyone is as fortunate as we are,” Falkenstrom said. “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 (FFCB), 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. 

“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,” said Falkenstrom. “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.

“No, those are not the safest places to travel,” acknowledged Falkenstrom. “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.  

“Firefighters showed up in jeans, tennis shoes and T-shirts,” said Falkenstrom, emphasizing how the local folks still try to make a difference with very little.  

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

Brian Singleton, FFCB director of Region 2, shared a positive outcome of the training session. “We taught a class on self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA),” the director said. “Four days later, a crew responded to a fire, used the SCBA and rescued a man who had collapsed in the building.”

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

“The district and its board of directors are completely supportive of the work Erik is doing with Firefighters Crossing Borders,” San Ramon Valley Fire Chief Paige Meyer said. “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.

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