In late April 1992, when the Los Angeles riots erupted, a 32-year-old reserve police officer with the LAPD was sent out to help quell the rapidly escalating violence.
The next day, that same officer hopped on an engine as a full-time member of the Los Angeles City Fire Department.
For the majority of his nearly 35 years working at public safety agencies, Wolfgang “Wolf” Knabe has had his foot in two distinct but closely linked professions:
Cop and firefighter.
Knabe, during a recent interview in his office at Fullerton Fire Station 1, pulled out his wallet and flipped to his police badge.
Then he displayed his firefighting badge.
“I think what drives people to these careers is sort of the same: They want to do something noble, they want to do something for the community, and the jobs are exciting,” said Knabe, who in July will mark his 10th year as Fullerton’s fire chief, and his 4th year as Brea’s fire chief.
“Not every firefighter would want to be a police officer, and not every police officer would want to be a firefighter,” Knabe said. “They are separate niches. But you do have people who like both. And I like both.”
Knabe spent 22 years with the Los Angeles City Fire Department and was a reserve police officer with the LAPD for 16 years, spending the last seven as a member of the department’s SWAT team.
He was chief of the San Luis Obispo Fire Department from 2002 to July 2005, when he became Fullerton’s fire chief.
For the last five years, Knabe, 56, has served as a reserve patrol officer for the La Habra Police Department — putting in one graveyard shift a week or two, in addition to serving as fire chief of Fullerton and Brea following a command staff consolidation agreement that went into effect last year.
“(Firefighting) has been a great career for me and has been great for raising a family, but I also love being a police officer,” Knabe said. “They are different jobs, but they support each other.
“I’m very proud to be able to serve all my families: Fullerton, Brea, and La Habra.”
Knabe (“Call me Wolf,” he says) recently shared some accomplishments of the Fullerton Fire Department as well as his unconventional upbringing. He was reluctant to be the focus of a story, preferring instead to give credit to the fire and police personnel with whom he works.
Knabe was only 5 when his mother brought him with her to the United States, leaving behind, in his native Germany in a town near Munich, two sisters and a father he barely knew.
She had met a U.S. serviceman in Germany but he soon vanished after she and Knabe relocated to the East Coast to live with him.
Knabe, who settled in Southern California with his mother when he was 7, spent 3 ½ years in foster homes before being reunited with his mother when he was 11.
But she worked as a live-in cook and housekeeper, which forced Knabe to start living on his own when he was 14. She would visit his apartment on Sundays.
When he was 17, Knabe dropped out of Hollywood High School to join the Marines.
“I was a lost soul,” he said. “I wanted to go to Annapolis or West Point but couldn’t because I didn’t have the grades or right background. I’ve just always been patriotic. This country has given me everything.”
Knabe was going to make the Marine Corps his career but changed his mind after meeting his future wife during weekend liberty when he was stationed at Camp Pendleton.
“I knew a military career wouldn’t be very conducive to family life,” Knabe said.
Knabe left the Marines and planned on becoming a police officer but fell into a career in fire service “by happenstance” when a friend urged him to take a firefighting test.
He passed and immediately was hired by L.A City Fire.
“It was fate,” said Knabe, who was five years into his career at L.A. City Fire when he went through the LAPD academy and was hired a year later as a reserve.
As fire chief of Fullerton, Knabe helped shape the command joint powers agreement that went into effect last year that has him and other members of his command staff also managing fire services in Brea.
Knabe oversaw the launching eight years ago of an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) program at Fullerton Fire and is ramping up a USAR team for Brea Fire.
He also beefed up an existing tactical medic program (or TEMS, for “tactical EMS,” also known as a SWAT medic program) that was expanded to include Brea.
And Knabe helped establish for both agencies swift-water rescue teams.
“The goals were to expand our services, and I give a lot of credit to my team here, as well as the leadership of both cities, in getting some of these key programs launched,” Knabe said.
Fullerton Fire’s swift-water rescue team made news a few years ago when members retrieved the body of a man who drowned near the Brea Dam while trying to rescue his dog following heavy rains.
And Fullerton Fire’s Truck/USAR team was credited with saving the life of the lone survivor in the car crash that killed rookie Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart shortly after midnight on April 9, 2009.
Jon Wilhite suffered internal decapitation but survived after undergoing five hours of surgery to reattach his skull to his spine. Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson were the other victims in the crash.
“They saved his life based on their knowledge and expertise with USAR,” Knabe said. “The doctor basically said if Wilhite had been moved the wrong way or if he hadn’t have been extricated the way he was, he would have died.”
Knabe also oversaw the establishment at Fullerton Fire of a very active CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program and, more recently, the launching of the department’s page on Facebook.
“We’ve been on Facebook now for about three months and are about to become active on Twitter,” Knabe said. “We’re trying to really expand our social media presence and trying to get as much information out there as we can.”
Knabe and his wife, Heather, have been together for 39 years and have been married for 33 years. The Ventura County residents have five children and nine grandchildren.
Two of the Knabes’ children are in the fire service: Adam, 33, and Travis, 26, a former Marine. Heidi, 30, is a teacher and her twin, Holly, is a nurse. Hope, 21, is in college.
Knabe plans to remain fire chief of Fullerton and Brea for a couple more years and is toying with the idea of then becoming a full-time reserve cop.
“But my wife says, ‘No, you’re coming home to spend time with the grandkids,’” Knabe said with a laugh.
For now, he’s happy being the man with two hats — and two badges.
“We (fire department) have a great rapport with the community and basically want the community to know they’re in good hands,” Knabe said. “We’re constantly looking at ways to better ourselves and be more efficient and effective.”
He added, “Our firefighters do an awesome job and put it on the line for the community each and every day.”
Knabe called the city of Fullerton and its residents resilient.
“We’ve gone through a lot together and it’s just like a family,” he said. “A family sticks together, and we come out of things and problems and we’re still family and we’re doing good things.
“Truly, Fullerton meets the needs of the community. The councilmembers listen to the community and are constantly looking at ways to get community input to make it a better place. We’re in a good spot now in Fullerton — and Brea, too. And I’m in a good spot.”