East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Steve Aubert

East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Steve Aubert speaks during a press conference in Brentwood, Calif., Thursday, June 11, 2020. ECCFPD Fire Photo by Tony Kukulich

Chief Brian Helmick discussed a recent decision to not send firefighters into burning structures unless lives are at a risk, a response to the district's limited resources to fight fires. 

District (ECCFPD) firefighters will no longer enter burning buildings to extinguish a fire unless lives are at risk.

“Moving forward, all of our engines’ operations, residential-, commercial- and industrial-type fires, our members are taking what is called a defensive stance as they approach all those fires,” Helmick said. “This is a resource issue.”

A defensive strategy involves fighting a fire from outside a burning structure and moving inside slowly and deliberately. An offensive strategy involves sending a team or multiple teams of firefighters into a burning structure to attack the fire at its source. Offensive attacks carry more risk and require more resources, but they can also extinguish a fire more quickly.

Revealed during the June 9 ECCFPD Fire Board meeting, Helmick called the policy change the most difficult decision he’s had to make during his tenure as fire chief. He said the decision stems from a number of operational challenges all resulting from insufficient district funding, a problem that has its origins in legislative decisions made in the late ’70s.

“Due to severe underfunding, our firefighters are continually overrun responding to calls, maintaining required training and trying to be active in public education,” Helmick said. “We must take necessary steps to save lives and provide the safest environment for our workforce, so firefighters are ready and able to answer the call when it comes.”

While the district’s strategic plan identifies a current need for six fire stations, ECCFPD operates only three fire stations in its 250-square-mile coverage area. With half the number of required stations, each firefighter must respond to twice as many incidents. Brian Oftedal, president of the fire board, noted that at one point last year nearly 20% of the district’s firefighters were unavailable due to work-related injuries, a situation he attributed to the high call volumes handled by the district’s firefighters. Director Joe Young added that the strain on firefighters is untenable over the long run.

“For a long time, we’ve been saying that we are stable over the next 10 years,” Young said. “From the 10-year standpoint, we can afford to pay for those three stations. But the workload is growing to the point where we’re not operationally stable. Three stations won’t do it.”

Firefighting standards recommend a five-engine response to a single-alarm structure fire. With only three engines available, the district has long been unable to provide a full response to fires in homes and businesses. To fill the gap, they have leaned heavily on an automatic-aid agreement with the neighboring Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire).

“We’re constantly pulling (ConFire) engines from Pittsburg and Antioch,” Oftedal said. “Now their community, their taxpayers are at risk. They’re expecting that their resources are going to be available in their district, and now we’ve got them over here ... They’ve been great partners, but based on a lot of conversations, we’ve been using the heck out of them.”

Under the automatic-aid agreement, ConFire typically sends two to three times the number of resources that it receives from ECCFPD. The two districts have worked to get that arrangement closer to parity, but those efforts have met with only modest success. Helmick called the imbalance unsustainable, and as a result the district is implementing operational changes to reduce the resources drawn from ConFire. Unless lives are at risk or there is a threat of fire extending to multiple structures, ECCFPD will limit its response to three engines.

“We are sending all of our firefighters and our members to fires with only three engine companies,” Helmick said. “We are the only fire agency in this county — and most likely throughout the state to some degree — that only sends three fire engines to a structure fire. This puts our members at a tremendous disadvantage. It creates an unsafe work environment.”

Scheduled to take effect July 1, the policy also poses risks for district residents and property.

“Unfortunately, this defensive-first operation strategy raises the safety risk factors for families, businesses and for property within our communities just as the 2020 fire season is getting underway,” read an ECCFPD press release related to the policy change.

Finding a solution is at once simple and complicated. The district has only two means at its disposal to increase revenue: a parcel tax and a benefit assessment. The parcel tax requires a two-thirds voter majority to pass, which presents a significant challenge. The district has been investigating a benefit assessment, and research completed last year indicated that a majority of respondents to a poll supported a benefit assessment. But the COVID-19 pandemic will almost certainly have impacted voter attitudes toward a spending measure. After various funding measures were defeated in 2012, 2015 and 2016, the district officials will no doubt approach their next move cautiously.

Helmick continued, “Our goal is to find common ground that helps shape a local ballot measure that our community can support, authorizing a new, stable and reliable (i.e., guaranteed, sustainable and sufficient) local funding source that secures adequate ECCFPD fire protection in the future and that doesn’t take resources away from our public service partners.”