County delays downstaffing fire stations

By Reggie Ellis

Just hours after a meeting with the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 23, Tulare County Fire Chief David Hillman assured the Exeter City Council the county would not be closing any fire stations in the next several months.

"I've been told [the county] will pursue a better fix," Hillman said. He said the board would suspend closures probably until July at its Nov. 30 meeting, which was after press time.

At its Nov. 23 meeting, the Board of Supervisors had announced that beginning Monday, Nov. 29, five fire stations would eliminate all full-time positions and would be completely staffed by volunteers, or paid call firefighters, in Dinuba, Visalia, Tulare, Alpaugh and Porterville. Then, in January, the switch would also be made at a second station in Porterville, Doyle Colony, Goshen and Lemoncove. Overall, 24 full-time firefighter positions would be eliminated.

"Those cuts would have negatively affected every station in the county," Hillman said. "City engines would have gone out more on county calls and affected service within the city."

He said outgoing Board Chairman and District 1 Supervisor Bill Sanders will spearhead the effort to get a utility tax to cover the $1.8 million budget shortfall to cover the cost for staffing all stations with full-time personnel. Sanders, who is retiring after 12 years on the board, will be replaced by Supervisor-elect Allen Ishida in January. Hillman, whose father sat on the Board of Supervisors in the 1970s, said, "The budget was just short of covering the cost in 1974, and you can imagine it is just that much more short in 2004."

The board has said the shortfall is the difference between what it costs to run county fire services through its contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CDF) and what the county can afford after the state's continued raiding of property taxes to cover a huge budget deficit. CDF is the state-wide fire agency that covers state lands and supports county and local fire stations especially in rural areas.

If the cuts were not postponed, the Exeter Fire Department (Tulare County Station 11) would 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 east of Badger Hill and west to Farmersville Boulevard.

Because Stations 9 (Walnut and Lovers Lane in Visalia) and 13 (Lemoncove) would have been reduced to volunteer only, Exeter would have had to increase its coverage west to Lovers Lane and East to Three Rivers, which could have added another 5-10 minutes to response time for medical aides, fires, car accidents and rescue operations. Conversely, the volunteer response time for Stations 9 and 13 to back up Exeter would also increase because without full-time firefighter, no one is at the station when the calls come in. Volunteers must go to the station, get their equipment and then respond to the call.

Most fire station's rule of thumb is that full-time personnel respond at about a mile per minute, without any major obstacles. Fortunately, the county did not propose any cuts to full-time positions at Woodville (Station 17) or Ivanhoe (Station 8) which flank Exeter to the south and north respectively.

At its last meeting, Capt. Wes Grim told the city council that nearly half of the Exeter Fire Department's calls are outside of city limits. Grim said EFD has already received 1,200 calls this year, just 17 shy of last year with another month to go.

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