As the Newport Beach Fire Department celebrates its 100-year anniversary, fire engineer James “Jimmy” Philbin closes his career of 37 years at the department.
Philbin, 61, retired April 7 after spending his entire career at NBFD as both a fireman and fire engineer.
“It’s been 37 years of fun,” Philbin said.
He has some ideas for retirement, he said.
“I plan on traveling a lot,” he said. He has been calling his travel plans the three C’s: The Caribbean, Colorado and northern California.
He may also do some volunteer work. No set plans but things will evolve, he said.
“And I’ll make the evolution go toward good stuff,” Philbin said.
He’s humble and hardworking, said Capt. Mike Mullen.
“Jim is a real nice guy,” Mullen said. “He’s done a great job for 37 years… And he’s a role model to everybody.”
Philbin said he feels extremely lucky to have gotten a job in Newport Beach. He applied for jobs for two years before being offered the position here and has been here ever since.
Most of his nearly 40 years were spent at Balboa Peninsula Station #1, he said, with a few years at the old Balboa Island station (that is now a retail store) before it moved down the street.
At least 28 years of those were spent as a fireman before advancing to engineer.
Philbin, who grew up in Los Angeles, said he wanted to be a schoolteacher when he was young.
In 1972, he graduated and was ready to take his education classes to become a teacher. He remembered reading the headlines about the overabundance of teachers, he said, and wasn’t sure what he was going to do.
He saw some older friends down at the beach who had become LA firefighters and one of them talked him into taking the test.
He knew he wanted to work with his hands and his mind, he said, and didn’t want to be stuck in an office. After talking to his friends he was convinced it was the ideal job for him.
He also liked that they seemed to have free time, but, he said, firefighters work an average of 240 hours a month or 56-60 hours a week.
During all those hours, over all those years, Philbin has accumulated a lot of stories, good and bad.
There is one in particular sticks out in his memory though.
“After 37 years, and I’ve said this before, the best thing to happen to me…was something that happened to me off duty,” Philbin said.
But it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had the education and knowledge he received from the fire department, he added.
It was Fourth of July about 10 years ago, he was at home relaxing, he said, when he went across the street to say hello to his neighbors and see their new 18-month old baby.
“Within five minutes, I heard this blood curdling scream,” he recalled.
The father comes running into the room with the baby, who had been sitting in a running car. The baby had somehow rolled the power window up on his neck while his head was outside. There was no pulse or heartbeat, he said. The infant was lifeless in his father’s arms.
“And you have to remember… When you’re at home in shorts and a t-shirt, you’re not in the same mindset (as when you’re in uniform),” Philbin said.
But all that training paid off and his instincts kicked in. He grabbed the baby and tore open his shirt.
“All the buttons went flying off his little Hawaiian shirt,” he recounted.
He set him on the ground and checked his vitals. He realized the baby wasn’t getting any air and started performing CPR.
“After what seemed like forever the baby came around,” he said.
Paramedics took the infant to the hospital and he came out just fine, said Philbin, who just saw the young boy a few weeks ago.
“It was one of the highlights of my career and it didn‘t even happen in uniform,“ he said. “But it wouldn’t have happened if hadn’t had all the knowledge I got from this place.”
Philbin said he doesn’t feel like a hero, though, for this event or any others. He’s just doing his job. That’s what he’s trained to do, that’s what he’s there to do, to help. And he’s glad to do it.
Although the fact that he is always willing to help has never changed over the years, he has in other ways.
Physically, he’s not a strong 24-year-old anymore, he said, but he’s still doing the same tasks. There are more aches and pains now.
Mentally, he has calmed down a lot since he first started and has learned to deal with high-stress situations.
He has also developed his own way to deal with all the awful sights he has seen. It’s important for a person in this kind of job to not let every horrific detail affect them, he said, or else they could be overwhelmed.
“You have to save yourself mentally,” Philbin said. “You can’t take it all in… The things you see… If you do, you won’t last. You have to have a way (to deal with it all).”
Over the years and throughout all the calls, Philbin has developed his own way to handle it all. He has grown with the job.
He isn’t the only thing that has changed over the years – the equipment has changed too. The communication tools, turnout outfit and gear, and safety equipment have all progressed throughout the years. Before, only the captain had a radio, the firemen dressed in a coat and boots to fight fires and the single oxygen tank was for wimps.
“You still put it out with water,“ Mullen said. “but the science behind it (fighting fires) has changed.”
Firemen also weren’t trained in CPR, first aid or other life-saving skills. Now, they are all trained and have designated paramedics.
The advice Philbin has to the newer firefighters is to have fun, enjoy the job and don’t make it a miserable place.
That’s what he has tried to do over the years, he said. He has enjoyed the work and the people and has had a really good time working for the fire department, he said.
“This is such a fun job,” Philbin said. “And it feels good to have helped. It’s been very rewarding.”