Rescue Ranger: Fire department’s new K9 has one job — help save first responders’ lives
By Kendall Balchan
The firehouse dog is one of the most iconic associations people have with fire departments. In pop culture, you know the fire department is on the way when you hear the sirens wail and see a Dalmatian on a fire truck as it careens down the road.
There hasn’t been a facility dog at the Palm Springs Fire Department for the longest time. That all changed last September when Deputy Fire Chief Jason Loya introduced Ranger, a 2-year-old English Labrador, to the department.
Both Ranger and Loya have very unique missions.
Loya has worked in peer support for more than 20 years. He’s there to listen and offer a shoulder for men and women struggling under the stress and trauma of the job. “I let them know that they’re not alone in going through what they’re going through,” he explains.
Now, after decades at the department, he’s helping usher in a new era. Loya is committed to combating the stigma of mental illness and to putting the firefighter/paramedics on a path toward healing. He knows the first and hardest step is getting people to admit they need help.
“Our careers are very demanding, not only physically but mentally,” he says. “To get through the day and make it to the next call, many firefighters may bury feelings of anxiety or depression. In our careers, we have that tough person mentality.”
Those tough exteriors often hide inner turmoil. And Ranger, with his infectious joy, big clumsy paws, and curious wet nose, makes it easier to break down that hard outer shell. Loya considers it a sneaky way of introducing subtle mindfulness practices.
“Seeing the critical calls, getting up multiple times at night, lack of sleep, all those stressors,” often coupled with unhealed childhood and personal trauma, contribute to an epidemic of deaths by suicide among firefighters, Loya said. One study estimates firefighters and police officers are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
Loya got the idea of a facility dog at a conference when he noticed a man with a German Shepherd trained to alert him of impending seizures. In an instant, he recalls, something clicked. Studies show interacting with a dog increases oxytocin, which lowers blood pressure, calms breathing, and reduces the production of stress hormones. If the fire department had one, he thought, maybe it could help.
There’s no doubt that help is needed. The day-to-day grind of doing dangerous work may seem like it comes with the job, but Loya says it catches up with you. First responders may not realize just how much mental anguish they’re under when their training teaches them to charge into burning buildings and remain in a constant state of hyper-vigilance in order to survive. It can be difficult to turn off their brain’s constant state of fight-or-flight.
Loya knows firsthand how hard it is to ask for help, having been on the scene during some of the most traumatic calls in city history.
“I was at a point in my career a few years ago where I was having palpitations,” he says. “I was stressed out, my heart was racing. I had eye twitches.” But after getting a clean bill of health, he realized it was the stress of the job.
Loya was the incident commander during a 2016 tour bus crash on Interstate 10 that killed 13 and injured 31 others. Two weeks prior, he saw his colleagues respond to the fatal shooting of Palm Springs police officers Jose “Gil” Vega and Lesley Zerebny. A few months before that, he arrived at a critical call of electrocution in a pool. One person died, and five children were injured. “A room full of kids feeling like they’ve been shocked, it’s traumatizing,” he says.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime calls in such a short amount of time,” he says. “Carrying the weight and burden of guilt and shame just eats us alive.”
Those calls, coupled with personal losses, led to Loya seeking refuge in the Save a Warrior program. The program taught him the mindfulness techniques he uses to this day.
“It changed my life significantly. It helps rewire our brain” and turn off that fight-or-flight response, he explains, adding that he has taken steps to teach the same techniques to other firefighters and even different departments in the city, such as the City Clerk’s office.
Ranger helps with mindfulness too. When firefighters are petting him, they’re in the present moment, grounded and not thinking about the latest call. They’re connecting with a creature who has nothing but unconditional love for them. Loya says he can see firefighters slough off their worries and anxieties, if only for a second.
So far, the duo has focused on the fundamentals. Ranger goes to work with Loya each day, and they visit fire stations and attend special events, often blending into the background as emergency personnel go about their business.
“He’s so well behaved,” says Loya. “You go up to him, and he just wants to lay down, and he gives you his belly, and that’s it. He’s a teddy bear.”
Looking at Ranger’s lovable exterior and ease with people, you’d never guess that hundreds of hours of training have been put into him already. The welcome addition the firefighting family is trained by David Greene at Performance K9 Training near San Diego. Greene is recognized internationally, having trained more than 2,000 service dogs during the past 15 years.
Ranger’s previous owner turned him in after he chewed up the seats of a Range Rover — hence his name. But despite his puppyhood penchant for destruction, Greene knew he had the temperament to be a good therapy dog. Loya and Ranger were brought together by the Thor’s Hope Foundation, which works in partnership with Performance K9’s Firehouse Project.
The Palm Springs Fire Department has been without a K9 since the early 2000s. PSFD Retired Engineer Roland Cook and his dog Bautz made up an accomplished Search and Rescue Team that went to Ground Zero just days after 9/11. Bautz is forever memorialized with other first responders outside the Palm Springs Airport Fire Station. A testament to his loyalty, bravery, and hard work.
Ranger isn’t a Search & Rescue Dog, but he’s rescuing people every day from stress, anxiety, and depression in his small way. He also plays a crucial role in a significant philosophy shift for the department. Leading with empathy and openness helps first responders care for themselves, the thinking goes, and those first responders can better care for the community.
“We’ve really revamped and refocused on developing that more significantly,” Loya says.
CLASS TIME CHANGES: Palm Springs Unified School District students and their parents should be prepared for a significant change next school year, district officials advised this week. The first bell of the day will be ringing roughly one hour later for some, but an hour earlier for others. The change comes as the district works to implement a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 that requires California to be the first state to implement later start times for middle and high school students. The law goes into effect in the 2022-2023 school year. Under the changes, students who attend city high schools and middle schools will start the day at 8:45 a.m. Current, high schoolers start at 8 a.m. and middle schoolers begin at 7:40 a.m. To help provide a seamless transition for transportation services, the PSUSD Board of Education was told Tuesday evening, elementary school students will be starting at 7:45 a.m. instead of 8:40 a.m., effectively reversing the bus routes currently in place. Also impacted will be nutrition services — including when breakfast and lunch is served — and after school activities which require transportation and depend on start times that allow them to be finished before sunset. More details will be known as the new school year approaches.
STABBING ARREST, OTHER POLICE ACTIVITY: Palm Springs police arrested a man suspected of stabbing a neighbor Wednesday following a brief search. Authorities had alerted the public at 10:48 a.m. that they were on the scene of a stabbing in the 1300 block of Vista Chino. According to police, one person was stabbed and left with non-life-threatening injuries following a dispute between neighbors. The suspect, a 40-year-old Palm Springs man, reportedly fled the scene but was later caught in the 1700 block of Vista Chino where he had entered a convenience store and reportedly threatened a clerk. The man was booked on felony charges of attempted murder and making criminal threats. The incident was the second of the morning that police alerted the community about. At around 9 a.m., residents were advised to avoid the intersection of Tachevah Drive and Biskra Road, where a body was found. The victim was described as a white, middle-aged man, but his exact age and identity were not released. Police officers and deputies from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department were on the scene investigating the death, which did not immediately appear suspicious. No cause of death has been released at this time, pending an autopsy.
COD UPDATE: College of the Desert officials are expected to attend the Palm Springs City Council meeting this evening to answer questions regarding the planned West Valley Campus and other facilities. Superintendent Martha Garcia, alongside other school officials, will update the Council on recent developments. The West Valley Campus, which will be located in Palm Springs, has been in development since 2004 and raised almost $1 billion dollars in tax revenue for construction. It remains in the planning phase, frustrating taxpayers and city officials alike.
WEEKEND STREET CLOSURES: Motorists in the city are being advised to be aware of road closures this weekend for the annual Tour de Palm Springs cycling event. the 24th annual event will take place on Friday and Saturday, impacting traffic throughout the city, primarily on Saturday when up to 4,000 cyclists will navigate local roadways on rides up to 100 miles. A complete list of streets that will be impacted was made available by the city on Wednesday and can be found here.
MIZELL CENTER: The Mizell Center, 480 S. Sunrise Way, offers multiple classes and programs today, starting at 8 a.m. You can find a complete list of all today’s activities online here.
SISTER CITY PROGRAM: The Palm Springs Sister Cities program meets to provide updates to the public at 8:30 a.m. Registration is required and can be done via this Zoom link.
TEEN CRAFTS: Teens are invited to craft an Alma Woodsey Thomas Inspired art kit this month, courtesy of the Palm Springs Public Library. You can schedule an appointment to pick up a craft kit at the library starting at 10 a.m. Registration for in-person pick up is required and can be done at this site.
WOMEN’S CHAT: The LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert offers a chat group for all women — no matter how you identify — to discuss topics of interest and find connections every Thursday at 10:30 a.m. You can find information about the event here.
BOOK CLUB: The Cover to Cover Book Club meets virtually at 10:30 a.m. To receive meeting information and join the email list for the club, please email [email protected].
STORY TIME: Librarian Nancy Valdivia reads stories, sings songs and shows early learning concepts (Wednesdays in Spanish and Thursdays in English), starting at 10:30 a.m. You can watch the videos on YouTube here.
FOOD BASKETS: FIND Food Bank distributes free food baskets in the community today. You can find them at the James O. Jesse Desert Highland Unity Center, 480 Tramview Rd., from 4 p.m. until 5:30 p.m.
FREE MUSEUM ADMISSION: The Palm Springs Art Museum offers free admission from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets are required and can be obtained here. Tonight’s events at the museum include a performance by E & J Movement in honor of Black History Month. The free performance begins at 5 p.m.
SUNSHINE SISTERS: The Palm Springs Sunshine Sisters will meet for a game night at a private home in Palm Springs at 5 p.m. The purpose of the group is to enable and foster female friendships. Any woman living in the Coachella Valley at least part-time can join. To learn more or to join, visit the group’s Meetup page here.
CITY COUNCIL: The Palm Springs City Council holds its regular meeting starting at 5:30 p.m. You can find a preview of the meeting, as well as participation and viewing instructions, in this article.
VILLAGEFEST: The city’s weekly outdoor street fair takes place at 6 p.m. on Palm Canyon Drive downtown. The event includes vendor booths on both sides of the street, which is closed to vehicular traffic.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
BIKE EVENT: Registration for the annual Tour de Palm Springs, planned for Feb. 12, remains open. The event features walking and cycling routes, some as long as 100 miles, kicking off between 6:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. All of the routes start and finish on South Palm Canyon Drive near Tahquitz Canyon Way. More information about the event, which is expected to draw 4,000 cyclists this year, can be found here.
MODERNISM WEEK: The city’s annual celebration of midcentury modern design, architecture, art, fashion, and culture takes place Feb. 17 through 27 at multiple locations. Modernism Week features more than 350 events, including the Modernism Show & Sale, home tours, films, lectures, double-decker architectural bus tours, and more. Tickets and additional information are available here.
‘SALTY’: Desert Ensemble Theatre continues its season at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Rd., with the California premiere of Salty, a play by AJ Clauss. Performances are February 18–20 and 25–27: The curtain goes up Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7 p,m,, and Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 and available at this link.
MID-MOD AT ART CENTER: The Desert Art Center, 550 North Palm Canyon Dr., launches its Mid-Mod Show with a Tiki -Taki Luau Reception from 4 p.m. until 6pm. on Feb. 18. Gallery artists are challenged to create their most interesting modernist spin for this show, which runs for two weekends in the Studio Gallery, Feb. 18 through 21 and 24 through 27.
‘PALM SPRINGS GETAWAY’: The next performance at Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 North Palm Canyon Dr., begins its three-weekend run on Feb. 25. Palm Springs Getaway is described as “a nostalgic romp through Palm Springs featuring the history and entertainers that made our city famous.” Tickets range from $15-$36. Complete information, including run dates, showtimes, and how to purchase tickets, can be found here.
COMEDY CLASS: Comedian and local favorite Mina Hartong is offering a live stand up comedy class starting March 4. The class is open to any and all participants and will be held weekly for five weeks at The Mizell Center. Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to email Hartong at [email protected].