Fire Station 13 in La Jolla bid farewell to Capt. Michelle Canale Dec. 3 as she retired after 20 years of service. In a lively gathering of lifeguards and firefighters, the station at 809 Nautilus St. was packed with well-wishers at her going away party.
“Every day is different in this job,” she said, of what she would miss about her post. “You go out every day to help people. Sometimes it’s a fire, sometimes it’s helping someone elderly who fell, but it’s all about helping people. But when someone calls 911, they are usually pretty desperate. So you have to learn to be patient and compassionate. When I walk into an emergency situation, I always say ‘my name is Michelle and I’m here to help.’ It makes it that much easier for people, because it’s an intense moment for them. They are at their worst.”
With decades in the rescue biz, Canale started her career later than most (she became a firefighter at age 42). And despite the physical challenges, the 5-foot-5 Orange County native was always up to the task.
Canale began her career via the San Diego lifeguards at La Jolla Cove, thanks to her now-husband Jimmy, who guarded there. When the two met, he convinced Canale to join him in lifeguard service.
But as a lifelong water-sport enthusiast, it didn’t take much convincing. “My family and I were always swimming and doing water sports. When I was in high school, they didn’t have girls water polo (she graduated high school in 1972, the same year Title IX was signed into law), but I played with the boys,” she said. She also was a competitive wind-surfer during and briefly after her college years in Hawaii.
When she moved to San Diego, she met her would-be husband and served as a seasonal lifeguard – mostly in Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Ocean Beach. After six years, Canale considered a position in the fire department, a common transition for San Diego lifeguards in that both jobs are very physical, involve staying cool under pressure and rescuing people.
She started by volunteering with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, and prepared to take the test required to become a firefighter. Although she passed, the department didn’t hire her. “I tried up in Los Angeles to get hired up there, but they said I was too old. But I actually wanted to stay in San Diego because that’s where Jimmy was a full-time lifeguard,” she said.
Canale was finally hired at age 42, but it was up in Escondido. From there, she worked in Encinitas for a few months before she was hired in San Diego. As a resident of University City, Canale said a priority was to be near her young daughters, Kori and Karli.
“When I first came on, I worked everywhere (because having a say in where you are stationed is based on seniority) and I was basically filling in for people who were sick wherever the need may be,” she explained. “I worked at San Ysidro, but I tried to stay close to my family because my kids were little and there was the transition between when I was coming home and when my husband was going to work, and getting the girls to school. So I worked in Clairemont, UTC, and short stints elsewhere before La Jolla.”
Kori, a graduate of The Bishop’s School, is following in her parents’ footsteps and is a lifeguard in Mission Beach. Karli is a student at La Jolla High School and on a water polo team.
Both girls grew up in La Jolla, chiefly the Cove. “I would take Kori out to the caves and she would look for Ariel (from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”). Or the girls would go up to the Cove lifeguard tower and sit with their dad … so they’ve grown up around this service,” she said.
After seven years as a firefighter, Canale became an engineer and soon advanced to captain. Although she said she was “so lucky to fall into this profession,” she also said she had no idea she would ultimately become a firefighter. “If you don’t know what you are going to do or what you want to be … don’t be afraid to try something different or to fail. You can always try something different and something new,” she said.
Speaking to her daughter Karli’s water polo team at the going away party, Canale said, “You can do anything, even if someone tells you that you’re not strong enough or smart enough, you can still try.”
Also at the celebratory send-off, Chris Webber, who came through the academy with Canale and later became her battalion chief, read a letter from Fire Chief Javier Mainar congratulating her on 20 years of service. “I value the stability and expertise your years of experience bring to the job. Your devotion and loyalty are extremely important to the success operation of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department,” he read. “You can take pride in the years of commitment of serving the citizens of San Diego.”
Speaking with La Jolla Light, Webber added, “She’s the nicest person in the world. She’s steady in her approach and always has a smile on her face.”
With a daughter still in high school, Canale plans to stay near La Jolla and resume sports, like water polo and kite surfing.