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San Diego Hero: Jonathan Feliciano

What motivates the fire engineer/paramedic for the Coronado Fire Department to run into disaster

By Kai Oliver-Kurtin | Photography by Robert Benson

San Diego Hero: Jonathan Feliciano

San Diego Hero: Jonathan Feliciano

Jonathan Feliciano | Fire Engineer/Paramedic, Coronado Fire Department

While most San Diegans associate the Silver Strand with ocean views and a salty breeze, Jonathan Feliciano looks at it from a different standpoint—underneath more than 60 pounds of equipment and the potential for emotional burdens that weigh even heavier. It’s where he once found a motorcyclist thrown 200 feet from his bike, with substantial injuries including broken legs, arms, and ribs. At the end of the strip, along Orange Avenue, he can point out the median a drunk driver careened over and caused a head-on collision with a van containing nine family members. One was killed on impact.

Thankfully, in his seven years with the Coronado Fire Department, the firefighter and paramedic can point to a handful of happier endings, too. Like the time he and the crew saved a man who had a heart attack the night before his son’s wedding.

The department responds to an average of 2,400 calls per year. Since he joined in 2011, Feliciano has saved more than 50 people who were in cardiac arrest or experiencing a heart attack. He’s put his own life on the line even more than that, but working in dangerous conditions comes with the job. “On medical calls, we could be responding to traffic accidents where distracted drivers may be speeding and not see us on the road; it doesn’t take much for us to get hit,” he says. “We will take a risk if there’s a life to be saved. We have to quickly measure whether the risk is worth the reward.”

Firefighters also face the threats of smoke inhalation, buildings collapsing on top of them, accidental electrocutions, and being exposed to hazardous materials, chemicals, or radiation. Drowning is a big concern while working near water, because of those 60 pounds of personal protective equipment—boots, pants, jacket, hood, helmet, gloves, mask, and a self-contained breathing apparatus on his back. A flashlight and other tools weigh down his pockets, and the firehose, which can produce 150 gallons of water per minute, adds even more weight. He compares being fully outfitted and maneuvering around a burning structure to being in a sauna while wearing multiple layers of clothing. “There’s a lot of adrenaline, and the sensation of the heat is really unique, but you just push through,” he says. “You have a heightened awareness of what’s going on.”

The brotherhood within the department and the un­predictable nature of the job—not knowing what kind of call will come next and the certainty that each day will be different from the last—are what initially drew Feliciano to firefighting. At the station, the crew eats, sleeps, and exercises together, and cooks communal meals. But they drop everything and run to “the rig” when emergency calls come in.

When he’s not on duty, he’s also a member of San Diego County’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 8, an elite team trained in responding to large-scale community disasters such as a collapsed structure. In this line of work, it’s common to see burn injuries, but it’s especially tough when the victim is a child; this motivated Feliciano to join the Firefighters Advisory Council for San Diego Burn Institute, where he volunteers for fundraising events and has served as a counselor during their weeklong summer camp, Camp Beyond the Scars, for young burn survivors. “The experience was phenomenal,” he says.

“The kids have these physical scars, but the camp serves their emotional response. They benefit a lot from being with other kids who have similar scars and stories.” One camper’s story in particular stuck with him. The child was caught in a house fire intentionally set by his father, and he had only been able to save one of his siblings. The rest of his family died in the fire. “I’ve gone through a lot of things in my life, but it’s nothing compared to what this kid has gone through,” he says. “The kids taught me more than I taught them.”

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