Fire Chief Hugh Henderson Monday presented the board with two scenarios that could be implemented if the tax fails and the district is forced to get by on the money it now receives. Plummeting property values in recent years have cut district revenue from $12 million to $8 million, and the reserves that have maintained district operations will run out next month.
The plans are “two flavors of sickening,” said Director Joel Bryant. One would close two more stations (Bethel Island and Knightsen would join the Discovery Bay and Byron stations closed in 2010) and staff the remaining four (two in Brentwood, one each in Discovery Bay and Oakley) with two firefighters each. The model would mean there are eight firefighters on duty in the district at any one time, and a total of 24 firefighters would be required. Nineteen of the district’s firefighters would be laid off.
The second plan includes closing one additional station, Brentwood’s downtown Station 54. That would leave open Brentwood’s Balfour Road station, plus the Oakley and Discovery Bay stations, each staffed by three firefighters. That plan would mean nine firefighters are always on duty in the district, and that 27 firefighters would keep their jobs (16 would be laid off).
Henderson said he strongly supports the three-station model, both for firefighter safety and because a three-person crew can do much more than a two-person crew. At a fire, three people are required before any rescue can be attempted (when no rescue is required, the federal “two-in, two-out” rule requires a fourth person on scene before a burning building can be entered). Vehicle accidents involving more than one patient, or medical emergencies involving heavy or immobile patients can also be taken care of by a three-person crew.
Three-person crews can also bring more than one piece of equipment to a scene. Many areas in the district lack fire hydrants, so the ability to send a 3,000-gallon water tender with the first-arriving engine can be critical.
Some board members said they leaned toward the four-station model because firefighters could be on scene earlier to more calls. However, Henderson said, since many emergency calls require three firefighters, those calls would require a second district engine and four firefighters to respond, utilizing more district resources than if a three-person crew were to respond. That in turn could negatively impact the response to subsequent calls. Last year, the district averaged 17 calls per day.
Either scenario would make a major impact on response times. First-arriving engines now average about six minutes, 27 seconds to arrive at emergency calls, but fewer stations could double that figure. Calls from downtown Brentwood and subdivisions to the east, for example, would jump from less than six minutes to 12 or 13. East Oakley and Knightsen would also see longer response times.
Calls in most of Bethel Island now require six minutes to reach. Should the tax fail and the Bethel Island station be closed, it could take 13 minutes for help to reach just the Bethel Island Bridge from Oakley, assuming the Oakley engine is in-station.
Under either scenario, non-emergency calls such as smoke investigations, floods and gas odors would no longer be responded to until a district engine is available. Currently, those calls get support from ConFire in Antioch. But since the ECCFPD would need assistance on more emergency calls (five engines are now dispatched to all structure fires, and ECCFPD would operate only three or four in the entire district), non-emergency aid would be eliminated to reduce the strain on ConFire resources. The ECCFPD already gets help from ConFire about twice as often as it provides assistance in return.
The new system would also make it harder for the district to assist itself. Even in areas where stations will remain open, the second-due engines will come from up to twice as far away, if they are available. Fewer engines mean more calls per engine, longer and more dangerous drives with lights and sirens, and more likelihood that backups will be busy on a call of their own.
Vince Wells, president of firefighter union Local 1230, told the board Monday that the sparse coverage reflected on maps they were looking at was the best-case scenario, and only possible if all engines are in-station when a call comes in. Responding from other places could make the travel time even longer, and the uncertainty of when backup would arrive would impact firefighters’ ability to deal with an emergency.
“It will make it harder to make life-or-death decisions not knowing if or when another crew is coming,” Wells said. “This is the position we’ll be put in if we have eight or nine guys to cover 250 square miles and 105,000 people. The firefighters are not going to be able to live up to your expectations if we have to go down to eight or nine.”
Measure S opponents have said the ECCFPD is top-heavy, and consideration should be given to reducing the number of fire captains, engineers and administrative personnel in favor of more firefighters at the bottom of the pay scale. This week, Henderson re-iterated that the suggestion doesn’t work.
“An engine company is a team,” he said. “Every team needs a leader – that’s the captain, an equipment manager, the engineer and a worker-bee firefighter. To effectively operate in an emergency situation, having a crew with all the right players is essential.”
The district now employs three battalion chiefs, one per shift. The other administration staff are Henderson and one administrative assistant who handles all the district paperwork, payroll, ordering, and staffs the front desk at the district office.
If Measure S passes, district property owners will pay $197 per year, plus up to 3 percent cost-of-living increase. In addition to keeping all current stations open, the tax would enable the district to add paramedics to its engines. The district is the only one in the county not providing paramedic services, which are now provided under a county contract with American Medical Response. That contract runs out in 2015, Henderson said, and it’s not certain that the far East County service it provides will be continued.
The original measure called for a 5-percent yearly maximum increase, but public feedback from dozens of information meetings held by district officials in recent months caused the board to scale it back. The result is that, even if the tax passes, more work will be needed to assure the district’s viability.
Henderson said that work is already under way. Talks with Local 1230, suspended until after June 5, have already resulted in union acknowledgment that changes in benefits will be needed. Base pay in the ECCFPD is already the lowest in the Bay Area.
Other measures could include eliminating things such as equipment replacement funds. Like reducing engine staffing to two, Henderson said he believes it’s a backward step that should not be taken.
“I feel very strongly about that,” he said Monday. “When we consolidated, we started building a modern, suburban fire district, and that’s what we need.”
Director Pat Anderson echoed the sentiments of the rest of the board when she said she hopes the tax will pass, and three- or four-station scenarios are not needed.
“These are choices you never want to make, but the choice isn’t necessarily ours, it’s the public’s,” she said. “I just hope the public really does hear the message.”
Want to know more about the ECCFPD?
Click here to read Part I in The Press' series about fire protection in East County, focusing on the history.
Click here to read Part II, which details a firefighter's job duties when not putting out flames.