The move, made by a reluctant County Board of Supervisors on the advice of an equally reluctant Confire Chief Daryl Louder, comes in the wake of last month’s failure of Measure S, a parcel tax that would have benefited the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD). Confire’s neighbor to the east, the ECCFPD covers 250 square miles of far East County, including Brentwood, Oakley, Discovery Bay, Bethel Island and Knightsen. Without the new revenue, the ECCFPD was forced to close three of its six stations and lay off 15 firefighters on July 1.
Automatic aid, which dispatches the closest available resources to emergency calls, is based on the concept that fire districts will receive about as much assistance from neighboring districts as those districts supply in return. Prior to last month’s station closures, the ECCFPD already received about three times more assistance than it provided Confire, which covers most of Contra Costa, including Antioch. Since July 1, the ratio has become even more imbalanced: Confire has answered 20 calls for the ECCFPD, sending a total of 29 engines. The ECCFPD in the same period has assisted Confire three times with a total of three engines.
This week’s decision means that if more than three engines are needed by the ECCFPD, they must be requested by firefighters responding to the call. The standard response to structure fires is five engines.
The decision also means Confire will no longer send cover-up engines to stand by at ECCFPD stations while those units are on calls, nor will Confire respond to non-emergency calls in the ECCFPD. Odor or smoke investigations, animal rescues or minor medical calls in will not be answered until an ECCFPD engine is available.
“It’s pretty much what we’ve been planning for,” ECCFPD Chief Hugh Henderson said. The new system will likely mean longer response times, he said, and will impact how incidents are handled.
“We have to evaluate every incident differently for tactics now, knowing (assistance) may be coming from farther away,” said Henderson. At a structure fire, for instance, the awareness that support will be delayed could cause firefighters to protect threatened buildings prior to attacking a building on fire in order to keep the number of structures involved to a minimum.
Also on Tuesday, the Oakley City Council announced it will invite the public to apply for two of the city’s three seats on the fire board. The nine-member board is currently made up of the three Oakley Council members, plus four Brentwood City Council representatives and two directors appointed by the Board of Supervisors to represent the unincorporated areas of the district.
The current appointed board took control of the ECCFPD from the Board of Supervisors in 2010 with the intention of converting to an elected board as soon as possible. The process would require two elections, one to ask residents if they want an elected board, and a second to elect the directors.
The total cost of the two elections would be about $300,000, or nearly 40 percent of the $800,000 reserves left after the district slashed its budget from $11 million to $8 million following the Measure S defeat.
“The cost for a broke fire district to host another election was too substantial,” Mayor Kevin Romick said at Oakley’s City Council meeting Tuesday. “We met with our legal counsel and they said we could do an appointed board, which is a cost-effective alternative, so we’ll try to move forward with that.”
Brentwood’s City Council will discuss appointing residents to replace its councilmembers at its July 24 meeting. Oakley will wait until then to finalize a timeline for the shift, but will most likely appoint replacement directors with staggered terms in order to maintain experience on the board while new members get up to speed on district operations. Romick, the current ECCFPD chair, will remain on the fire board for one year, while councilmembers Jim Frazier and Pat Anderson will vacate their seats.
“It’s unfortunate that at this point (electing directors) is a cost prohibitive process, but a necessary process to get a more diverse group as originally intended,” Frazier said.
The ECCFPD has also begun an effort to determine if there is enough interest among district residents to support a new volunteer program in order to help serve the 250-square mile district now protected by only nine firefighters per shift. Henderson said Wednesday that applications are now available on the district website, www.eccfpd.org.