It’s almost as if Jeff Paganini was born and raised on the back of a fire engine. At the age of 58 he’s spent more than 40 of them putting out fires and saving lives with the Sonoma Fire Department.
So now that he’s retiring from the profession he’s known since he was 17 years old, firefighters around the Bay Area are paying tribute to a fireman’s fireman who left his mark on generations of firefighters.
“I think he’s pretty much responsible for thousands of people’s lives being saved,” said Lieutenant Jonathan Baxter, a San Francisco firefighter who worked under Paganini in the Sonoma Fire Department.
Paganini was 17 when his mother signed a permission slip allowing him to become a volunteer firefighter. He served with Cal Fire for a time. But he spent the majority of his career with the Sonoma Fire Department, the city where he grew up — taking inspiration from a neighborhood full of volunteer firefighters.
He recalled the chief who hired him giving him an edict: “‘Promise me one thing,” Paganini remembered him saying. “‘All I ask is you leave this place a little better than when you got here.”
And in retirement Paganini is leaving plenty. He founded the Sonoma County Fire Department museum, designed the department’s training tower and founded a local chapter of the Every 15 Minutes campaign focused on deterring high school students from drinking and driving.
“Is that part of his job description? No. He saw a need and he filled it,” said fellow Sonoma Firefighter Jim Cominsky. “And since it was accepted and took on we have not had a fatality vehicle accident involving alcohol in high school kids.”
Paganini said the founding of the fire department’s history museum sits at the top of his list of proudest accomplishments. Inside a former store room, fire engines from the early days of the department are flanked by displays of old badges and uniforms. He showed off the city’s 1889 water tender which holds the distinction of being the only fire apparatus anyone knows of that actually pumped wine on a fire.
“It ended up putting the fire out and saving the plaza,” Paganini said with a chuckle.
Paganini paced through the museum, eyeing the vintage vehicles — some of which were still in use when he joined the department. He said once word of the new museum began to spread, people started turning-up with vintage department treasures. The Benicia Fire Department discovered a box of original Sonoma Fire Department uniforms in a storage room. Paganini lit up as the museum filled with the past.
“His passion was creating something, a historical thing” said his son Nick Paganini, now a San Francisco Firefighter, “to not lose memory of how it started.”
The elder Paganini said young firefighters entering the department should know its long history — the sense of where it came from and how things came to be before trucks were outfitted with GPS and computers.
“When I came to work we used pencils and paper to write a reports, and use a map book,” he said. “And now there’s computers in the engine and everything."
But retirement won’t come easy for a man used to slipping into his fire fighting gear in under a minute, or riding down the street with sirens wailing. Even now, the sound of a radio call to his unit stops him mid-sentence. And the wail of a siren gives him an adrenalin rush.
“It’s tough because I live a few blocks away,” Paganini said, “and I hear the siren and the engine leaving the station.”
But the veteran firefighter won’t be slipping into the easy-chair just yet. Even after retiring he’s re-enlisted as a volunteer, with the intention of easing out of the business gently.
“I just don’t see me sitting in a chair in front of the TV,” he said, pulling down the museum door.