Photos courtesy of Jake Heflin.
Long Beach Fire Department spokesman Jake Heflin grew up in Laguna Beach, attended Cal State Long Beach, and had lived almost all of his life in California. He has a cheerful disposition, to say the least.
In fact, his demeanor is perhaps among the friendliest in the City; he glows with gregariousness, responds to any request in mere moments, and is greeted on every street corner by Long Beachers far and wide who know him by face and name. The interview with this reporter was interrupted no less than five times by passersby at the corner of Magnolia and Broadway stopping to say hello.
Yet, something had always been missing in his life, he said, until he made a pilgrimage to a place of ancestral value some time ago. Something he couldn’t quite place.
Years after growing up knowing he was of Native American descent, Heflin made his first trek to Osage County, Oklahoma. It was there when it finally clicked: he finally felt home, in the full sense of the word. History, family and tribal unity combined to give him a sense of self that had, until that point, been lacking.
“I felt whole,” Heflin said. “One thing that’s always been constant is my identity as a native person. Identity is who you are as a native. It really is about connecting.”
The Osage Nation does not calculate its membership through a “blood quantum” as Heflin puts it (where you will hear phrases such as “I am one-sixteenth Native American.”) In the Osage tribe, if you can prove one of your ancestors was an Osage Tribe member, you are a member for life. And the land of Osage Nation members is passed on to their next of kin, so that all Osage progeny are members.
The sense of inclusion likely contributed to the sense of becoming whole that Heflin experienced so fully.
"It really speaks to American history. What you are and what you look like may not be indicative of your ancestry," said Heflin. To him, the story of the "Reign of Terror" conducted against the Osage Nation in the early 1900s and 1920s, in which tribal members were being killed for their mineral-rich land, resonated with him. He felt that his personal history was somehow more complete.
While in Osage County visiting his family’s homeland, Heflin also learned of a severe lack of emergency services in the region.
“As a firefighter, I thought it’d be great to get a patch from my [tribal] fire department,” said Heflin. But when he was asked, he was told the tribe didn’t have a fire department.
“I said, ‘that’s interesting,’” said Heflin. “And as I experienced this life as a firefighter, the idea of not having that safety or service to the community... to be able to pick up the phone and dial 911, to be able to get those core essential services, the fact that that was inconsistent to my people was just not... it just didn’t seem real.”
Heflin was immediately spurred to act, launching a nearly 11-year odyssey that continues to this day.
He first became national director of the Tribal Affairs Division for the California State Firefighters’ Association in 2010, before founding the nonprofit Tribal Emergency Management Association (iTEMA) within the Osage Nation, of which he became president in 2012.
Two years ago, he testified before the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on the importance of emergency management training and response, recommending federal funding be set aside for such.
“It lit my fire,” said Heflin of his 2005 experience in Osage County. “I became very driven. I wanted to take my knowledge and capabilities to help my tribe.”
“In 2005 or 2006, he called me and introduced himself, saying he was getting ready to come back to the Osage Nation to do emergency management training,” said Bobby Tallchief, the director of Emergency Management at the Osage Nation, who was the assistant fire chief of the Bartlesville Fire Department at the time. Bartlesville was largest city near to Heflin's homestead.
“He said—how do they not know you’re 24 miles away?” said Tallchief.
Tallchief said he and Heflin proceeded to talk for three hours, and have been close friends ever since.
Heflin with Councilmember Daryl Supernaw, also a member of the Osage Nation tribe.
Heflin collaborated with Tallchief and Sid Caesar, the Emergency Management Chief at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs on outreach plans, some of which were shelved until funding becomes available. But in the meantime, Heflin thought of solutions communities could work toward with no budget.
“Every time I’d have a conversation, there were consistencies every time, where the tribe was saying they had no capacity, not enough resources and no subject matter expertise,” said Heflin. “It became a matter of... how do we prioritize the idea of creating organizations that could support tribes impacted by disaster?”
Heflin helped create a toll-free national phone line (1-855-NDN-9111), which rings directly to his phone and helps him coordinate a response to the issue at hand.
“Funding is always an issue. But, collectively, we are working together at creating solutions,” said Heflin.
Heflin’s eagerness to help others resulted in his rise through the ranks of the Long Beach Fire Department. His responsiveness and outreach experience, particularly with the Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) program—a program that proved effective during last year's power outages—eventually got him a job as one of the Public Information Officers (PIOs) within the Long Beach Fire Department (LBFD).
“He wants to help people even when they don’t know they need help,” said Caesar. “There is a great bunch of people who rally around him. He helps the tribes and is really a part of the community.”
Heflin’s made an impact nationally, among Native Americans and non-Native Americans, among locals and non-locals, among public safety officers and civilians. That’s because Heflin—the man who always has a smile on his face and appears to be radiating a sense of calm—has made it his life's work to serve others.
“I am very grateful to have a supportive wife and family that believes in me and the importance of this work," said Heflin.
Heflin lives with his wife Janelle, an emergency room nurse at Long Beach Memorial and their five-year-old son, Jace.
“He’s definitely one of those give-the-shirt-off-his-back-type person,” said Caesar. “When you call Jake Heflin you’re going to get assistance. That’s why Jake is such an asset to Long Beach.”
“He’s a real honest guy and he wants to help,” said Tallchief. “Not just the tribe, but everyone.”
Above, left: Jake and his mother, Shari Ravenscroft.
This report was updated on Monday, August 2 at 5:16PM with information about Heflin's wife and son.