The layoffs, and the closure of three stations, came in the wake of the failure of a fire tax in last June’s election. Last month, the district got word that it has received a $7.8 million FEMA grant that allows the district to replace the laid-off firefighters and pay their salaries for two years. The FEMA money can be used only for payroll, however, so station-opening costs must be absorbed by the cash-strapped district.
Chief Hugh Henderson told the ECCFPD board this week that eight of the laid-off firefighters will return to the district, but that six have found work in other districts. The district will first look at the state’s list of displaced firefighters, and perhaps hold an open-application process if enough qualified firefighters can’t be found. Since nine firefighters are needed to staff each station with a crew of three as required by the grant, the reopening of stations will be phased in as crews are assembled and trained.
First to reopen will be Knightsen’s Station 94. The strategically located station had previously been the second-responding unit to calls all over the district. Mainly, however, reopening Knightsen will improve service in the areas most affected by the July closures, including Bethel Island, where responses have doubled from just over seven minutes to more than 14.
Next to reopen, Henderson said, will be downtown Brentwood’s Station 54, one of the district’s highest-volume stations prior to the closures. Station 54 will reopen once a second crew of nine fully trained firefighters can be hired. Depending on the source and training levels of those hired, it could be January before 54 is back in business.
The third station shuttered in July is Bethel Island’s Station 95, but it’s unlikely that it will reopen any time soon, if at all, Henderson said. The stationhouse has been red-tagged for human habitation by the Department of Health, and due to the presence of toxic mold and asbestos, could be used only to store equipment and vehicles.
Reopening the station, which was built in the 1940s, would also require complying with flood-control requirements. The trailer that had been used for crew quarters has been removed, meaning repairs could cost as much as $1 million, Henderson said.
Henderson told the board that negotiations were ongoing with Shea Homes, owners of the Summer Lake development at the corner of Cypress Road and Bethel Island Road. The developer is required to build a new fire station once the 600th building permit is pulled, but since only about 350 have been pulled so far, it could be “several years” before a new station is built, Henderson said – well beyond the district’s means.
Ongoing talks with Shea include the possibility of using the former sales office temporarily, or possibly reducing the number of permits needed to trigger the new station’s construction.
Also on Monday, the board discussed a request from Director Bob Kenny of Bethel Island to consider making stipends available to directors, as is done in some other districts. A small amount would help offset costs associated with attending meetings, he said, thus deepening the pool of potential directors.
“You don’t have to take it; you could give it back to the district or give it to charity,” Kenny said. “But some people might need it. I know I do.”
The rest of the board, however, felt strongly that the district’s financial woes precluded even considering such a move.
“Not for me, ever, no way,” said Director Ron Johansen, who was attending his first meeting as a representative of Oakley. “It sends the wrong message, both to firefighters and to the community.”
Brentwood resident Carissa Pillow agreed, noting that the district was considering hiring volunteer firefighters. “It’s absolutely inappropriate,” she said. “This is a volunteer position. If you don’t have the heart of a volunteer, I suggest you step down.”
The board voted 6-1 against spending staff time to further investigate the idea, Kenny voting in favor. Directors Erick Stonebarger and Joel Bryant were absent.