After 32 years of fighting fires in southern California and another seven teaching the trade to both active-duty and aspiring firefighters at College of the Canyons, Steve Dixon, chair of the college’s Fire Technology Department, is ready to take on the challenge of spending a year in Iraq as fire chief at a military base.
Sitting back and taking it easy is not part of his psyche. Maybe it's the anticipation of the adrenaline rush that first responders seem to crave, or the challenge of a huge job at a critical time, or perhaps the patriotism that courses through his veins. Whatever the reason, later this month, Dixon is ready to take on what could be the most challenging job of his career.
Set to depart for Iraq as early as July 18, Dixon says it is simply something he has to do. The twinkle in his eyes and the spring in his step the last few weeks on campus belie his 65 years and more than a full career in a physically and mentally challenging line of work. He is excited and filled with anticipation, not only for the work that he knows will be hard, exciting and dangerous, but also about all of the real-world experiences and lessons he'll be able to bring back to the classroom.
“In some respects," says Dixon, "I have been frustrated in fulfilling my desire to serve my country. When I was 20 years old, I was hit by a car and seriously injured my knee. I always thought the military would be my career," recalled Dixon, "but in the induction line, they saw a big purple scar on my knee from major surgery, and my hopes of a military career ended there."
Dixon became a fireman and over the next 32 years served the public by focusing on protecting life and property. He vividly recalls the excitement and risks he faced while fighting fires at both L.A. riots (in 1963 and 1991), the huge Redondo Beach Pier fire, and during responses to dozens of major brush fires - one of which nearly engulfed his truck and fire crew.
"When 9/11 happened," said Dixon, "I was already retired from the fire service and working at College of the Canyons. Many of my friends who were still active firefighters went to help out in New York City and I kept asking myself, 'What can I do?'" Last December Dixon saw an ad in a firefighting magazine looking for civilian firefighters interested in working on military bases in Iraq. "I went ahead and e-mailed the company. They were apparently interested in me and over the course of several months they requested, and I sent, a letter of interest, an updated resume and copy of my professional certificates." The resume and certificates reveal a person with outstanding credentials. In addition to nearly 40 years of hands-on experience, he holds an associate degree in fire
technology from El Camino College, a bachelor's degree in management from University of Redlands, a variety of certifications from California and national fire academies, and experience as a paramedic and arson investigator, among other qualifications.
Dixon is certificated as a master fire instructor, and his accomplishments over nearly 40 years in the firefighting business are extensive. He retired from the Manhattan Beach Fire Department in 1995 and worked at Warner Brothers, L.A.ValleyCollege and El Camino Community College prior to being hired at College of the Canyons in 1998.
In March of this year, the company interviewed Dixon over the phone for 30 minutes and shortly after offered him a job. Dixon's wife of 32 years, Bonnie, is very supportive of her husband's latest adventure, understanding that he is a patriot at heart and that he has always wanted to give back to his country. His three daughters and seven grandchildren are mostly in support of his decision, although some have expressed concern for his safety in the war zone.
Dixon requested and has been granted a leave of absence from his duties at College of the Canyons through June 2006 to serve in this capacity.
Dixon leaves Santa Clarita July 18 for a week of orientation in Houston, Texas and then on to CampVictory in southern Iraq, from where he will be re-assigned to a military base somewhere in Iraq.
Is he excited? "You bet I am," said Dixon, barely able to conceal his pride and enthusiasm for what he calls "a chance of a lifetime."