During the last two years, discussions have been underway with representatives from Contra Costa County, Brentwood and Oakley regarding the status of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD). Concern continues to grow about the possible effectiveness of its operations. However, these discussions have stalled.
The district is woefully underfunded. Fire services are funded with property taxes, the 1 percent of the assessed value that we all pay. If you live in Oakley, 6 cents of every dollar in property taxes is spent on fire protection. In Brentwood, the amount increases to 7 cents.
However, if you in live in Antioch, it's 15 cents; in Pittsburg, 16 cents; in Concord, 13 cents; in Walnut Creek, 14 cents; and in San Ramon, 13 cents. These amounts vary across communities as a result of an archaic allocation scheme developed in 1978 with the passage of Prop. 13.
The present funding has the district operating with two firefighters on each engine and no paramedics, which falls short of the industry standard of three firefighters. One of the three firefighters on each engine should be a trained paramedic. The salary and benefit levels for the district personnel are substantially below industry levels.
A 2006 study performed by Citygate served to accentuate these deficiencies. The study concluded that far East County would eventually need 10 fire stations with three firefighters on each engine. Again, one of the firefighters on each engine should be a trained paramedic. According to the study, it would cost the district about $18 million to achieve that level of service. The study also concluded that a tax increase is necessary to provide more money to fund this service.
There was one option that the Citygate study did not address: a merger with Contra Costa Fire District (Con Fire). Incorporating all 10 stations into Con Fire would be cost prohibitive. But if we are merging, are 10 stations necessary? Can adding seven stations serve the majority of the protection area and still achieve the most effective and safe emergency responses?
Can the Department's Automatic Vehicle Locator (AVL) System (a system that uses satellites to track fire department units to allow the dispatch of the closest unit to any given emergency) reduce response time by tracking a unit's exact location and status, thereby allowing the closest unit to be dispatched?
Oakley and Brentwood are planning to build one station each in the near future. Are the locations best suited to the delivery of emergency services? Will they create overlaps with existing stations?
The residents living in the Con Fire district (Antioch, Clayton, Concord, Lafayette, Martinez, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, San Pablo, Walnut Creek, Bay Point, Clyde, El Sobrante, Pacheco and Port Chicago) pay the same 1-percent property tax that far East County residents pay.
Before we ask far East County residents to pay more to receive the same services, we need to create a regional view of the fire services provided by Con Fire, ECCFPD and possibly the whole county. The view needs to answer the key questions of merger, number of stations, station location and how we can fully capitalize on the AVL that is currently in place to capture economies of scale that come with expansion.
The residents of far East County deserve the same fire protection services afforded the rest of the county. The firefighters of ECCFPD have been underpaid and understaffed for years. They deserve to have equipment above the minimum standard, staffing at the minimum standard, and to be paid the average of their peers who do the same job.