Going 26.2 miles in bunker gear, California's 'Fireman Joe' renders aid for St. Jude

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  •  7 min

United States of St. Jude - California - Jose Zambrano aka "Fireman Joe"

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EL SEGUNDO, California — As a professional firefighter, Jose Zambrano ran toward plenty of burning buildings to help save lives.

He began running afterward, too, putting his feet to the pavement on Southern California streets in part to ease the stress that came with his life-and-death work.

When the job’s dangers led to the death of fellow firefighters, he tied on his running shoes again — this time to raise awareness and money for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. 

But it was when a friend’s daughter died of cancer in 2015, that he began not just running marathons to raise money and awareness for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital — but doing so in 45 pounds of fire-fighting gear and a helmet featuring the St. Jude logo on the shield.

United States of St. Jude - California - Jose Zambrano aka "Fireman Joe"

That made the 50-year-old El Segundo Fire Department firefighter a popular St. Jude Hero, carrying the name “Firefighter Joe” in dozens of marathons that have focused attention and donations to St. Jude’s lifesaving mission in California and beyond.

“I have a special place in my heart for St. Jude, knowing I’m helping children who are suffering,” he said. 

Zambrano’s wife, Roxanne, said running in his gear is meant to draw more attention and support to that cause than he could otherwise muster.

And boy, does it ever draw attention.

Spectators, after watching marathon runners zip past in lightweight shorts and breathable fabrics, gasp at the sight of a runner in full firefighting gear.

Firefighters nickname it “turnout” or “bunker” gear, because it’s kept near bunks in the firehouse to be donned quickly when a call comes in. The ensemble includes fire-resistant and thermal-insulated jacket and pants with suspenders, and, for Jose, a traditional leather helmet.

And on his back, he carries a self-contained breathing apparatus that includes a high-pressure tank (empty of its usual compressed air), a pressure regulator and a mouthpiece — all connected with a backpack-like carrying frame.

All told, it adds nearly 25% of his 168-pound body weight to the already steep physical challenges of a marathon.

“People are just amazed. At first, they were confused, like, ‘Why are you doing this? Where’s his engine?’ And he gets to tell them why — that it's to raise awareness for St. Jude,” Roxanne said.

His unusual effort has earned him and his cause coverage on local television stations around the country. But before he was “Firefighter Joe,” Zambrano was just Jose — a teenager growing up in Venezuela.

In 1989, at age 18, he decided to run toward a better future and education in the United States, moving to San Diego to attend an international school. 

At one point, he dreamed of being a police officer. Like his mother, an educator, he wanted to give back. But Roxanne, who he met through church friends, said he was too nice. He should become a firefighter, she said.

He wasn’t convinced. “I was like, ‘Don't tell me that!” he recalled, chuckling. 

Then a Corona, California, firefighter invited him to shadow a fire crew on a ride-along — telling him he first had to bring ice cream to the fire station. 

“I showed up with the ice cream. I got to mingle with the guys. And then, boom! They got a call. It was like an adrenaline rush,” he said, as they scrambled into gear and onto fire engines.

They arrived at the scene to find a freeway car accident. "You're really there to do whatever it takes to save this person. You're just there to make things better, And I was like, this is it. This is my calling,” he said. 

But that was easier said than done.

Firefighter jobs are rare and competitive. It could take years to get a slot. “Basically, you have to show that you really want to become a firefighter,” he said. 

He attended the El Camino Fire Academy and then served as a reserve firefighter for the Santa Ana Fire Department, working at a station nicknamed “The Rock,” which got 21 calls in a typical 24-hour day. He worked municipal jobs for the cities of Corona and Newport Beach as he waited for an opening. It finally came at age 38 in 2009. 

United States of St. Jude - California - Jose Zambrano aka "Fireman Joe"

Today, he lives with his family in Big Bear, California, rising at 2:30 a.m. ahead of a work shift to arrive in El Segundo by 5:30 a.m. He works two days on around the clock, then has four days off. At the fire station, they train, work out, cook and do other tasks — until the bell rings. 

“If a call comes in when you're eating, you drop the food and go," he said. “You want to be out of the station within a minute or so, and usually at the call by four minutes. Because people are depending on us.”

Most of the calls aren’t fires, but rather emergency medical calls. But there are plenty where life hangs in the balance. 

“When you pull up, you can tell right away if it is really bad, just by looking at the faces of the people in the crowd,” he said. “It's bad when people are running out, you're running in and you say a prayer like, Please, God be with me.”

Not everyone makes it. When he arrives home, Roxanne always asks how his shift went. He usually says it was fine, even if sometimes she can tell there’s more to the story. She said he keeps it inside so he doesn’t scare them.

“The ones that really stand out are the ones when you see a life is taken, and especially if it's a child. It just stays with you. It's kind of hard for you to sleep at night. And you kind of suppress it. That's part of this whole reason why I started running,” he said. 

Along with the necessity of staying fit, running helped him to “decompress, relieve stress — to get the oxygen flowing through my head,” he said. 

In 2013, he read about four firefighters, including a 20-year-old rookie, who were killed at the Southwest Inn fire in Houston, a five-alarm fire in a restaurant that spread to an adjoining hotel. The firefighters, seeking to rescue guests, perished when a roof collapsed. 

“I told my wife, I've got to do something for my own brothers and sisters.” He decided to run in a marathon and raise money for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation — adding more awareness by wearing full fire-fighting gear.

Two years later, in 2015, Zambrano’s friend who he knew from marathons lost his 15-year-old daughter to cancer. She was the same age as his own daughter. And she’d also been a St. Jude patient.

What can I do to help? He asked. The answer: to run in her memory.

He did his research, and was impressed by the cutting-edge science at St. Jude, the treatment it provided and its promise that families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food. He quickly became a St. Jude Hero: a runner who fundraises for the research hospital as part of a nationwide alliance against childhood cancer.

Since then, he’s run in dozens of marathons, all in firefighter gear with a St. Jude badge on his traditional firefighter helmet. 

After spectators confused him for a runner known as “Fireman Rob,” Roxanne suggested “Fireman Joe.” The name stuck. “And it took off from there,” she said. 

He also creates his own endurance events to raise funds and awareness. Since 2016, he has done multiple 24-hour treadmill walk/runs at his local gym, walking for 24 hours straight on a treadmill. People asked him if he was crazy. By the middle of the night, he thought he might be.

"By 2 a.m., you start talking to yourself. But it’s another $2,500 or so for St. Jude," he said.

His training often includes running each morning for up to six miles without gear and ahead of a race, he runs the same in the evening with his firefighter gear. When he’s training near his home, running along a highway in full gear, drivers will see him and stop.

“Did the engine drop you off? They forget about you?” they ask, as he hastily explains he’s training for a race.

Before a race, he smears vapor rub and Vaseline on his body and dresses in full-body compression gear to keep the gear chafing to a minimum.

It takes a grueling five to seven hours to complete the 26.2 miles of a marathon in his gear that adds extra heat, weight and chafing. He sweats so much that he’ll lose 12 pounds of water weight. That requires downing gallons of  water and electrolytes.

And even then, the firefighter is never off duty. He stops to help other runners who have passed out, including giving CPR.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh thank God you’re here so soon. Where’s the rest of your crew?” he said. “I say, well, I’m not at work but I can help you.”

Some spectators are at first unsure whether he’s running to a fire or a finish line.

And then there are the occasional hecklers.

Roxanne said during some races “people will say, ‘Why are you wearing a Halloween costume?’ or suggest he’s trying to show off.”

“He’ll just point up at the shield and give them a thumbs up — to remind them, it's not about me. I'm running for St. Jude — and keep pushing forward,” said Roxanne, who is usually waiting for him at the finish line. 

He’s not sure how much he’s raised for St. Jude, but it’s substantial aid to the children battling cancer or other catastrophic illnesses. He’s kept in touch with his friend who lost his daughter to cancer, and said she remains part of his inspiration to continue running to support St. Jude.

Meantime, he has continued to aid firefighters as well.

In 2018, five years after the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Zambrano honored them by running from the Los Angeles fire museum to Yarnell though the desert, carrying 19 flags to put on each firefighter's grave.

These days the couple has three grown kids. The oldest, at age 26, is a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy. It makes him proud. And he said he is confident all the attention his fundraising has brought has helped St. Jude kids.

“I'm really humbled by all of this,” he said. “My biggest goal is one day to be able to say I raised a million dollars for the children — not for me to get credit, for the kids.”

He still sees suffering and trauma during his days fighting fires and responding to emergency medical calls. When he’s away at wildland fires, there’s often no cell phone signal. Roxanne won’t hear from him for days. It can be scary.

Last year he was deployed as wildfires swept multiple areas of California. “It was like the whole state of California had a wildfire going on somewhere,” Roxanne said.

He returned home, exhausted physically and mentally.

Once again, he tied on his running shoes and took to the pavement. And he found the strength to put on his bunker gear for some of those runs.

He knew he would soon be running to benefit St. Jude kids.

Like the career firefighter he is, Jose wanted to do everything in his power to render all the aid he could.

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