County fire cuts may increase Exeter FD's response time

By Reggie Ellis

On Sept. 8, fire crews from Exeter and Visalia responded to a near fatal collision near Anderson and Visalia roads. Both drivers were pinned in their vehicles and had to be extracted using air-powered lifters and the Jaws of Life.

Thanks to the speed with which they responded, both men were transported to Kaweah Delta Hospital and survived the crash.

Would they have been as fortunate if fire crews were delayed another 10 minutes?

The answer to that question may come sooner than anyone expected as Tulare County officials were forced to approve a budget for the Tulare County Fire Department that included eliminating 24 full-time firefighter positions at six county fire stations - Dinuba, Goshen, Visalia at Lovers Lane, Tulare and two stations in Porterville at West Olive and Doyle Colony. The cuts were the result of a $1.8 million shortfall due to salary increases and overtime pay for contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, the state-wide fire agency that covers state lands and supports county and local fire stations especially in rural areas.

"We have been trying for four years to reorganize the system to be able to afford fire services," District 1 Supervisor Bill Sanders said.

Sanders said salary, benefit and overtime increases for CDF are out of the county's hands. In fact, Sanders said CDF has struggled with the increases as well, which are approved by the state legislature.

"It's a payscale formula that has been used since the 1960s and it needs to be updated," Sanders said. "Unfortunately it's taken a financial catastrophe for us to do anything about it."

Fire Apparatus Engineer Richard Foster said the Exeter Fire Department (Tulare County Station 11) will have a larger area to cover because of the cutbacks. Station 11's current initial attack area - the area that Exeter is considered the closest and most likely to respond - extends south to Avenue 256, north to Avenue 300, east to Road 220 just passed Badger Hill and west to Farmersville Boulevard. Because Station 9 (Walnut and Lovers Lane in Visalia) has been reduced to volunteer only, Exeter will now have to increase its coverage west to Lovers Lane. Foster said that could add another 5-10 minutes to response time for medical aides, fires, car accidents and rescue operations. Conversely, the volunteer response time for Station 9 to back up Exeter would also increase.

"Unless they are at the station, the response time for paid call firefighters (volunteers paid per diem) increases because they have to drive to the station, get the equipment and then respond to the call," Foster said. "We estimate it takes about a mile per minute to respond for full-time firefighters and that is without any major obstacles. I don't know what affect it will have. We will have to wait and see."

Fortunately, the county did not make any cuts to full-time positions at Lemon Cove (Station 13), Woodville (Station 17) or Ivanhoe (Station 8) which flank Exeter to the east, south and north respectively. However, there have been talks of possibly combining some of these smaller stations but no action has been taken by the county. The City of Visalia does not contract with the county and has its own fire department.

Foster said the number of service calls for Exeter has increased by 128 over last year's total of 365 for the entire year. He said second-in calls, when a station is asked to back up an adjacent station, have also increased significantly.

"With these changes it could increase significantly again," he said. "We are already above last year's numbers."

Foster did say that the volunteer firefighters at Station 9 are "very good" and that the impact will not be in the level of response but the time it takes to get there.

Sanders said the people will have to decide what level of fire protection they want. He said the only way to put more money into fire services is to raise development impact fees for new construction and proposing a countywide assessment district. In the past, Sanders said the Board of Supervisors has initiated a temporary utility tax in 1993. He said the5-year tax was allowed to sunset but may have to be reinstituted by putting it up for a vote.

"This is what we can afford," Sanders said. "People may have to decide what's better - increased insurance premiums or a $40-$50 annual tax assessment."

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