After 27 years in the Beverly Hills Fire Department (BHFD) and a 34-year career overall, Deputy Fire Chief Joe Matsch retired on Dec. 20. In an interview with the Courier, he reflected on nearly three decades of public service in the city.
“My goodness, what an amazing community,” Matsch said from the “fire memorabilia” room in his home in Chino. “I’ve been blessed beyond measure and I have nothing but gratitude to them. I’m indebted to this community and I wish I had another lifetime to serve this community here.”
Like many toddlers, Matsch had that seemingly innate reverence for firefighters and their alluringly candy apple-red trucks. “As a kid, I remember my parents got me a pedal fire engine for Christmas,” he said. “It had a little ladder on the side of it and I remember pedaling around the house and I’d stop the engine and take off the ladder and I’d put it up against the wall or a cabinet and I’d climb up just pretending.”
His mother soon returned the fire engine, claiming Matsch was “too big for it.”
But Matsch kept that same reverence as he grew up, deciding to go into the U.S. Air Force Fire Protection after high school in 1987 to receive his training as both a firefighter and an emergency medical technician (EMT). After over four years of service in the Air Force, he moved to a fire department in Torrance and then to the Ontario International Airport, where he worked as both a police officer and a firefighter.
Matsch found he loved police work, but didn’t much care for splitting his time between firefighter and police officer duties. In 1994, Beverly Hills announced openings for its fire department. Matsch said that had it not been for two crucial decisions, the next 27 years of his life would have been fundamentally changed.
First, he didn’t go golfing.
In the Stone Age pre-internet era of job applications, Matsch had to call BHFD to get one of 1,000 applications available. The department even set up a phone bank to field the influx of interest. Matsch began calling as soon as he got off work, plugging in his car phone and dialing the number. As he drove home, he got a busy signal. As he called from his home phone, he got a busy signal.
Enter into this crucible of patience Matsch’s friends, who began pestering him to go golfing. “Oh my goodness, I am so glad I stuck with it. Didn’t go golfing that day and ended up getting a phone call,” he said.
The next decision came after Matsch had completed his written exam for the opening (which took place at the Beverly Hilton). For six months prior, Matsch had scrimped and saved for a missionary trip to post-Soviet Russia, laying down a nonrefundable $2,200 for the expenses. Going would mean missing the oral exam, but he had no guarantee he would make it past the written portion and had to make the choice before he would find out.
“I’m so glad I canceled my golfing trip [and] I canceled my Russia trip,” he said.
Matsch recalled his first structure fire in Beverly Hills with vivid clarity. When the call came in sometime around 1996, Matsch and the other firefighters were running ladder drills on the roof of the Rite Aid on Canon Drive. They could see the plume of smoke, emanating from Cove Way, all the way from the business district.
The house in question was undergoing construction and metal plates had been placed along the “winding” driveway. However, the plates had become wet and the fire engine could not make it up the slope, leaving Matsch and the crew to carry their supplies–ladder and all–up the serpentine path.
Matsch led the charge into the attic, where the fire was located. Inside, he saw the fingers of the fire “rolling across the ceiling,” a sign of extreme heat and combusting gasses. As he carried the hose further into the space, he became entangled in the metallic loops from exposed HVAC tubes. “I remember getting tangled up in a slinky and not being able to move. I’ve got fingers of fire going across the ceiling and thinking, this isn’t good,” he said. “This is how firefighters die.”
Following his training, he calmly clipped his way out of the thicket of metal in about a minute and a half. He soon emerged from extinguishing the fire with little snippets of wire still hanging off of him. To this day, he jokes about the incident with his crewmates from the time.
Matsch said that the highlights of his career were the creation of the 9-11 Memorial on Rexford Drive next to the fire station and the department’s accreditation by the Center for Public Safety Excellence.
Said Matsch, “Who would have ever thought that a piece of the [tower] would be there in Beverly Hills, so prominently displayed with such dignity and grace?”
Matsch leaves at a time of tumult for the department, as it deals with internal strife over the Los Angeles County vaccine mandate. While around 80% of the department is vaccinated, a handful of firefighters have requested exemptions to the mandate. One firefighter, whose exemption was denied, is suing the city and county.
He acknowledged that the department was “going through a challenging time.” But he insists that “there isn’t division in the fire department.”
“We are still very unified because we honor those differences, we don’t necessarily agree with those differences. Just like any family.”
Matsch added: “I just want to say to the community, we are a professional workforce. When it comes to providing a high level of service, we do not waver and you will continue to receive that professional service that you received yesterday and into the future.”
Matsch plans resting and evaluating his next steps over the next month or two before going back to some form of emergency management work.