Depending on how things develop, Henderson could be putting out fires in more ways than one. But the 45-year-old Brentwood resident comes to the top job with plenty of experience.
He has been a paid-on-call firefighter in far East County for 15 years, a Brentwood police officer for seven, a firefighter in El Cerrito (where he worked his way up to captain) for 10, and battalion chief with ECCFPD for the last 2½. The ECCFPD serves Brentwood, Oakley, Discovery Bay, Byron, Knightsen and Bethel Island.
At the beginning of this month, Henderson was appointed by the County Board of Supervisors to be the interim fire chief, replacing the last interim fire chief, Bill Weisgerber, who held the position 19 months.
Henderson has been told that his job could be a 3-to-12-month assignment, but he's interested in the permanent position. That decision will be made by the new board, which will likely be made up of either seven or nine members comprised of Brentwood and Oakley officials and residents in unincorporated far East County.
The other big decision that will be made by that board is whether to ask residents to agree to a property-tax increase to bolster the district's staffing level. Currently there are two firefighters on duty around-the-clock in each of the eight stations, covering a 250-square-mile area containing about 100,000 people in far East County.
"Pretty much the industry standard for fire departments is to have a minimum of three people on an engine," said Henderson. "Some of the larger cities have four people on their engines. It's just dividing the work load.
"The fire service has changed a lot in the last 10 years or so. We can't go into a burning building without a backup crew there. The only time we can break that rule is if there's a rescue. So having those additional bodies on scene, we can get those jobs done.
"The standard is that you should have 16 people on a working structure fire within the first 10 minutes. And with two-person engine companies, we have to send the whole district to do that. Having that third person on the engine makes a big difference.
"In a medical call - for example, a CPR call - it really takes three people plus the ambulance crew to take care of all of that patient care. With two-person engines, a lot of times we have to send a second engine to assist while they're doing CPR and taking care of all of those issues."
The problem with employing three firefighters on around-the-clock duty at the eight stations is that it will cost several million dollars more each year.
The district's current $11 million budget provides for 48 full-time firefighters earning just under $50,000 each, eight support employees and 25 reserve firefighters. Adding in benefits, training and equipment costs, each firefighter costs about $120,000 annually. Beefing up the crews to three people per engine could add another $5 million per year to the budget.
And that's why Henderson suggests the possibility of gradually increasing the staff by
adding a third person - not to every station, but initially to just the Oakley station, to one of the two stations in Discovery Bay and to one of the two stations in Brentwood.
Last year the firefighters responded to about 6,000 calls, 85 percent of which involve medical emergencies. Only about 15 percent of their calls actually involve grass or structure fires and auto accidents.
The response time on average is five to six minutes - perhaps a few minutes longer in the remoter areas of Byron, Marsh Creek Road and Bethel Island. Modern technology has helped speed up the response by allowing dispatchers to automatically know which engine is closest to the emergency, and the map and directions to the scene are automatically electronically displayed in the engine.
Firefighters also now use thermal imagers that can detect the body heat from a person who might not otherwise be visible in a smoke-filled house.
To help the firefighters find your location, Henderson advises making sure your address is visible from the street and that the house is well lit. You should, of course, also have smoke detectors and be careful when tending a fire in the fireplace.
When asked what kind of direction he'd like to take the district if he's selected to become the permanent chief, Henderson said, "I would say just striving to provide better service for the community and keeping the safety and welfare of our firefighters' needs to be the two priorities of the district, and continuing working through that. It's kind of a baby-step thing to keep moving forward and providing better service with everything we have."