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Ready to rescue

San Antonio volunteer firefighters now equipped to respond to emergencies on Petaluma River, other waterways


Ron Pomi has seen a lot of good ideas come and go in 47 years with the San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department, which serves an unincorporated area of Sonoma County south of Petaluma.

When volunteer firefighters Jason Zajonc and Matt Mattei approached Pomi last year with the idea to form a water rescue team in the department, the chief told them to work up a plan so that he could see “what it looks like.”

San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department Cpt. Matt Mattei, left, works with his water rescue team during training in Petaluma, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. (Crista Jeremiason / PD)

He couldn’t be prouder of what they came up with.

“They did a great job,” he said.

Thanks to the two firefighters’ efforts, the San Antonio department is now equipped to respond to emergencies on the Petaluma River and other waterways in Sonoma and Marin counties.

As a former All-American swimmer in college, Zajonc is perfectly suited to lead the team. Mattei, who is a volunteer fire captain with San Antonio, also is a San Francisco police officer. Both men live in Petaluma.

“We do it because we love it,” Zajonc, a technology consultant, said of volunteering.

San Antonio was formed in 1966 by local ranchers after a wildland fire swept through the Petaluma Valley. The department responds to fires, crashes, medical calls and other emergencies in a 20-mile area that includes a stretch of the Petaluma River.

Zajonc said he and Mattei saw a need for a water rescue team after the Petaluma Fire Department lost theirs to a spate of retirements.

The pair raised $30,000, mostly in contributions from the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department and Fireman’s Fund of Novato. The money paid for a 14-foot Zodiac boat, trailer, suits and other equipment.

The team’s 10 members underwent three days of training in Sacramento to hone their skills in swift-water rescue. That’s in addition to their regular duties as volunteer firefighters. The work, while demanding, draws people from a diversity of backgrounds, including auto mechanics, police officers and white-collar professionals.

Pomi said people often ask him why he’s done it for so long without being paid.

“It’s just a way of life for me,” he said. “I enjoy being around the young firefighters and watching them grow.”

Zajonc said it can be a thankless task sometimes to get rousted out of bed in the dead of night to help someone in need.

But he loves it, and “you become really close with the people you work with,” he said.

To learn more about becoming a volunteer firefighter, contact Sonoma County Fire at 565-1152.

For more information about San Antonio Fire, visit http://savfd.com/.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)