County hires Fire Service Consultant

By C.J. Barbre

The price of fire protection has become prohibitive, causing the county to seek ways to cut costs without cutting services.

It was decided at the Jan. 25 Tulare County Board of Supervisors meeting to hire a Fire Services Specialist to help the county bring this about. Once the news was published in local papers, county Chief Administrative Officer Brian Haddix said they had a lot of applications and ended up interviewing eight or nine candidates.

The person they were looking for had to be experienced in fire protection planning, emergency dispatching, fire suppression, field training, fire prevention, arson investigation, environmental protection, urban forestry, vegetation management, and mutual aid and disaster response systems.

Haddix told the supervisors at their March 22 meeting that rather than have a Fire Services Specialist on staff, they decided hiring a Fire Services Consultant via a personal services contract would be preferable. And they thought the person best suited for the job was retired Sierra South Regional Chief Gary Gilbert, with 36 years experience.

"He has experience at city fire protection and through the eyes of a Valley person," Haddix said. "He will be working with Tulare County entities in presenting the best scenario for fire protection."

District 5 Supervisor Jim Maples asked why they wanted a consultant as opposed to an employee.

Haddix said this would allow them to consult on an as needed basis. Gilbert will bill the county on an hourly basis, which they are still negotiating. County Counsel said the cap is $75,000 max. Haddix assured board members that billing would be well within that range.

Originally Haddix said the position as a county employee would pay $86,155 to $105,000 a year. This brought complaints from the CDF Firefighters Union that accused the county of looking for a new fire chief with this "comparable wage." Fourth District Union Vice President Billy See suggested back in January that they should look at hiring a consultant instead. He said money had been set aside in 2000 for consultants to create "true and factual, unbiased reports." See recommended that said consultant could take a look at the level of service that is proper for the 21st century, "an all inclusive analysis with quantifiable standards." Apparently the county listened.

Gary Gilbert took the podium saying he is ready to do just that. "This is an extreme financial challenge and also we need a basic level of public safety and service to the citizens." Gilbert said he would identify possible solutions and make recommendations.

"CDF was a good contract, but costs are really going up. I wish revenue sources were being raised at the same level. I have worked very cooperatively with CDF and kept up service. My job is to help decide issues." He said issues include Hazmat, city and rural firefighting, etc., concerns that "must be integrated cooperatively, be economically efficient and be responsive to the governing board."

District 4 Supervisor Steve Worthley said this was a great opportunity for the county to evaluate the whole area of service with CDF. "It's probably the only department we have not looked in every corner to cut costs," he said. "We are not fire experts which is why we need expertise."

Chairman and District 2 Supervisor Connie Conway said "He sits as we do, on this side of the dais so to speak, but he has the expertise."

Maples said this would be a cooperative situation with CDF, not adversarial.

The vote to hire a Fire Services Consultant was unanimous.

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