By Reggie Ellis

Things are heating up for fire services in Exeter as the county has begun tackling its budget shortfall.

Capt. Wes Grim told the Exeter City Council at its Jan. 25 meeting that the Exeter Fire Department saw an increase of 113 calls last year, an average increase of 10 calls per month. December was especially busy with 99 calls for service, including five structure fires. Grim said December is often more busy than dry summer months because fireplaces that have gone unused for most of the year are being turned on for the first time in nine months. Also, Grim noted an increase in fatal accidents on Visalia Road.

"I expect we will see at least that many calls next year, if not more," Grim said about the number of calls for service.

It may be a lot more depending on what the county decides to do about a $1.8 million shortfall in its fire services budget. The county's original plan was to downstaff all full-time employees to volunteers, or paid call firefighters, at five county fire stations in Dinuba, Visalia (Lovers Lane), Tulare, Alpaugh and Porterville on Nov. 29. Then in January three more stations -- Doyle Colony (Porterville), Goshen and Lemon Cove -- would also downstaff, eliminating 24 full-time positions throughout the county.

That decision was reversed by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors at its Nov. 23 meeting. The county deferred payment to the California Department of Forestry & Fire Prevention (CDF) to bide time to come up with a better solution to the budget shortfall. The county contracts fire service with CDF, the state-wide fire agency that covers state lands and supports county and local fire stations especially in rural areas, to operate 38 stations within Tulare County. Exeter is Station 11 of the Tulare County Fire Department system.

Under the first plan, Exeter stood to increase its response time. 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 Station 9 (Walnut Avenue and Visalia Road in Visalia) would have been reduced to volunteer only, Exeter would have had to increase its coverage west to Lovers Lane. The Exeter Fire Department 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 have also increased.

It is still unclear how the county will move forward and what, if any cuts will be made.

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