Fire Chief Hugh Henderson told the district board Monday that between 40 and 50 active volunteers would be needed district-wide to handle non-emergency calls and provide backup in emergencies. The need for first-responders would be even greater, said Henderson, who estimated that a volunteer program would need to provide 40 first-responders per station, or about 120 in all.
The district currently utilizes about 15 reserve firefighters, some of whom could help form the core of a volunteer pool, Henderson said. The existing reserve program was eliminated effective July 1 as part of the preliminary budget approved Monday.
Although the volunteers would not be paid for training or answering calls – reserves are paid for those activities – the volunteer program does come with a cost. Each volunteer must receive 240 hours of initial training, be outfitted with $6,000 in gear and undergo rigorous background checks and medical reviews. A special workers compensation insurance policy would also be required for the volunteers, bringing the total cost to the district to about $10,000 per volunteer.
The ECCFPD was formed in 2002 out of three smaller districts that began as volunteer or paid-on-call (POC) districts. After consolidation, about a third of the POCs in the smaller districts were hired as full-timers, while others failed to pass medical tests or background checks, or simply chose not to apply. Critics of firefighter union Local 1230, which came with consolidation, blamed the union for establishing hostile working conditions for the part-timers that led to decreased participation and the demise of the program.
On Monday, Local 1230 Vice President Gil Guerrero assured the board the union would not inhibit the formation of a volunteer arm. “If volunteers are the direction you want to go, we won’t stand in the way,” Guerrero said. “Just be real clear on what it is.”
After the meeting, Guerrero, one of the POCs hired at consolidation, said he did not anticipate tension between volunteers and union crews. The major task, he said, would be encouraging volunteers to remain in the ECCFPD instead of use their expensive training to secure a paid position in another district. Guerrero also anticipated that ongoing training, requiring about 20 hours per month, might be a problem for many potential volunteers.
The cost of a volunteer program, however, was not part of the $8.1 million budget approved by the board Monday. The district was forced to cut its bottom line from $11.5 million after voters soundly rejected the $197 parcel tax aimed at offsetting plummeting property tax revenues. A district budget adjustment that would pay for the volunteer program, if adopted, would be made prior to passage of the next ECCFPD budget in September.
But the board must first determine whether there is enough interest to actually form a volunteer arm. Director Jim Frazier asked that a target of 60 interested residents be set in order to allow for attrition and still arrive at the requisite 40 personnel, but the board ultimately voted 6-3 to require only 40 interested people in order to move forward with the plan. Directors Pat Anderson and Robert Kenny joined Frazier in voting no.
Henderson was directed to begin advertising to gauge interest in a volunteer program, making sure applicants are aware of what the job entails. In addition to the 240 hours of preliminary training, volunteers would undergo 60 hours of medical training and possibly 100 hours learning to drive a fire engine and operate its pumps. An additional 240 hours of training would be required every year – the same as the career firefighters the volunteers would work with. If enough volunteers can be found, Henderson said, a volunteer program could be up and running in about six months.
Also on Monday, Henderson told the board that changing from an appointed board to one chosen by residents would require two elections, one to ask residents if they want an elected board, and one to actually elect the directors. District boundaries must also be drawn, bringing the cost of transition to an elected board to about $300,000.
Since only $800,000 is expected to be left in district reserves, the board decided instead to consider the possibility of asking the cities of Brentwood and Oakley to appoint citizen directors to replace the seven (three from Oakley and four from Brentwood) city council members now serving. The County Board of Supervisors already appoints the two directors now representing the unincorporated areas.
The board also formally approved its reduced preliminary budget, but not before some tense discussions about the future. Director Steve Barr proposed a list of nine ideas brought forward by the public and asked directors to place them on a future agenda for consideration. The ideas included possibly revising dispatch procedures so only ambulances or the three quick-response paramedic vehicles in the district are sent to pure medical calls. Recovering costs of services provided to out-of-towners involved in traffic accidents, creating new benefit tiers for new hires, and soliciting bids for services from other agencies were also on the list, which will be discussed at a workshop later this year.
Other ideas that surfaced in discussion included Bethel Island resident Christine Thresh’s suggestion about getting the Bethel Island station designated as a historical building. Erected in 1948 but slated to close July 1, the worn out building has not been upgraded because substantial improvements would require raising it on stilts above the flood plain. Such requirements do not apply to historic buildings, meaning a historical designation could allow the station to be rehabilitated to serve as a volunteer-staffed location.
To learn more about being a volunteer firefighter or to get an application, contact the ECCFPD at 925-634-3400.