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Nevada County firefighter spends off-time battling snow

Rob Penn has worked for Caltrans in Nevada County for four years.
Laura Mahaffy/lmahaffy@theunion.com | The Union

For the last four years, Rob Penn has had a rather unconventional schedule from October to April.

The 48-year-old wrestles with hazardous flames as a lieutenant at the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District for two days of the week. Then after a shift at the station that can sometimes last up to 56 hours, Penn leaps atop a plow truck and helps keep sleet and snow off the local highways as an employee at Caltrans.

The strenuous schedule usually leaves Penn with only four hours off every week.



“I’m a community kind of guy,” he said simply.

“It’s like being in the heat of the battle with the fire department. When it’s storming, it’s the same feeling as going to a fire.”Rob Penn

Rob Penn has dedicated 35 years of tireless service as a public servant to the community, but as he approaches his 49th birthday, the lifetime Nevada County resident said he is still full of energy when it comes to helping people.




Penn’s passion for firefighting was ignited in the 1980s.

“I had a neighbor back in the early ‘80s who lived across the street, who was a volunteer firefighter,” Penn recalled. “He was the one who told me I should go to a meeting and join the fire department.”

And as soon as the 14-year-old marched into the small fire station across from the Fairgrounds, he discovered the calling of a lifetime.

“I’m like, yep, this is what I’m going to do,” Penn said.

Over three decades, Penn’s positions evolved from a cadet, to a full-time firefighter, engineer, captain, then finally to a lieutenant. He now serves at the Banner Mountain station of the Consolidated fire district.

The job also gifted him many unforgettable experiences.

He was the fifth engine to be dispatched to combat the infamous 49er Fire in 1988. And when terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, Penn hopped on an airplane to New York to assist in the rescue effort.

But Penn said it has been difficult at times.

“I see a lot of tragedies. When people call 911, it’s an emergency, and I’m the one who goes, and I think that’s another part of me that is getting tired. I’m getting tired of seeing other people’s tragedies,” said Penn.

In 2012, Penn decided to switch gears and try another profession that involves helping people. He took a position in Caltrans as an equipment operator, in addition to his duties at the Consolidated Fire District.

“I was thinking the firefighting thing was the only thing I have ever done — what am I going to do when I retire?” Penn said. “So I started to look around, I looked at Caltrans and I thought that would be a good thing.”

At Caltrans, Penn’s responsibilities vary from snowplowing, to cleaning drains, to chopping trees.

“It’s like being in the heat of the battle with the fire department,” said Penn, who described himself as an adrenaline junkie. “When it’s storming, it’s the same feeling as going to a fire.”

But the job at Caltrans is entirely different from what he imagined it to be. At times, it put him in more dangerous situations than firefighting.

“People don’t really pay attention to our yellow flashing lights…so there’s times when I’m on the road at Caltrans, and there are cars flying by me at 50 to 55 miles an hour just feet away from me,” said Penn.

Despite a busy schedule, Penn said he still finds time to volunteer at Hooper and Weaver Mortuary. He was ordained as a minister two years ago and has since married 10 couples in the community.

In his spare time, Penn even manages to get together every Friday with fellow members of Undercover, a band in which Penn has been a drummer for 27 years.

As a result of his busy schedule, missing holidays is not an uncommon occurrence.

“This Christmas Eve I was plowing snow at Caltrans, then I worked at the fire department on Christmas Day, so I got to miss everything,” said Penn.

Penn’s wife of 15 years, Kathy, is a paramedic whose job requires her to be on call during unconventional hours as well.

“Everybody understands, it’s a way of life for us,” Penn added.

Penn said he is considering taking a break from his duties as a firefighter. He is toying with the idea of retiring from his job at Consolidated at 50, but that doesn’t mean he has plans to part with other involvements in the community. For example, he is sure to continue working at Caltrans during the winter.

“Yeah, it’s busy, but it’s the life I’ve chosen for now,” Penn said.

To contact Staff Writer Teresa Yinmeng Liu, please call 530-477-4236, or email tliu@theunion.com.


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