Vol's, firefighters replace engineers at 5 stations

By C.J. Barbre

County Fire Consultant Gary Gilbert told the Tulare County Board of Supervisors that it was all the previous administration's fault that the present financial crisis is causing them to down-staff five of the county's fire stations to paid-call volunteer firefighters by May 2.

"This is directly attributable to a labor contract signed in 2001, which Tulare County was not a signatory, but is obligated under CDF to pay," Gilbert told the supervisors at their April 17 meeting. Of the 33 stations county-wide, the five down-staffing include Station No. 3 in Dinuba, Station No. 9 in Visalia, Station No. 13 in Lemon Cove, Station No. 17 in Woodville and Station No. 20 in Doyle Colony which is east of Porterville. Fifteen Firefighter Engineers will be replaced by paid volunteer firefighters and six Firefighter IIs. The plan would also eliminate two battalion chiefs. The county website presently lists eight battalions.

None of the 15 to 18 CDF full-time fire officials is being terminated. They will be relocated and CDF will cover the relocation costs.

Gilbert, who has 30 years as a professional firefighter both in rural and urban areas, said because of the area's integrated systems, they will be able to minimize the impacts of down-staffing these stations. "We will be able to move up, cover and backfill," he said, adding that, "Your board was very clear that the foothills not be impacted." Although Lemon Cove might be considered a foothill area, it only has a few hundred residents and they are pretty much surrounded by citrus groves. While places like Three Rivers have a couple of thousand residents and are in much closer proximity to national parks and forests and potential wildfires.

Gilbert said the local entity pays for all of the state's firefighting costs. "There is a tremendous depth of resources that local government pays for, but they are part of the integrated system that is so successful." He said all of the cost increases have happened since the 2001 MOU (Memorandum of Understanding). In a 27-page handout, Gilbert indicated where CDF contract increases with "planned overtime" come out to 37%. He said these are especially high in fiscal 05-06 and 06-07. Base compensation for a Firefighter II is $37,165 in 05-06 with $12,525 in planned overtime. Although the pay stays the same in 06-07, planned overtime jumps to $18,916 with a footnote that "assumes negotiated change to year-round planned overtime takes effect." Total compensation for a Firefighter II including "unplanned" overtime compensation for fiscal 05-06 is estimated at $62,140; for a fire apparatus engineer at $73,377 and for a fire captain at $94,947. In fiscal 06-07, those rates jump to $69,299, $83,280 and $106,606 respectively.

Gilbert said that although the paid firefighters are well trained, "We must compare [salary rates] with other public safety employees."

Gilbert said the Legislative Analyst's Office (California's Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor) is requesting a reopening of the MOU, especially when it looks at the state's fiscal situation. "At this time, your level of service far exceeds your ability to pay for it out of your budget," he told the supervisors, saying they would have to look at some "hard choices."

Tulare County Fire Chief Dave Hillman said it had been his intention to "provide the best fire service possible," but things have changed dramatically in the last five years. "The only option left is to reduce the level of service,"

he said. He said down-staffing would save $250,000 this fiscal year and $1.5 million next fiscal year. At the same time, Hillman said they want to hire six non-driving firefighters (The Firefighter II listed above) putting two in Station No. 4 in Cutler/Orosi, two in Station No. 8 in Ivahhoe and 2 in No. 19, the West Olive Station in Porterville. Hillman said with two men, they won't arrive at fires any faster, but they will be more efficient when they do arrive. Currently stations are staffed with only one paid person on duty, and he said, they have the best response times in the state. Hillman said two men per engine makes that engine a lot more efficient. "Right now we're sending a minimum of four engines and a water tender to make sure four people show up," he said. He added that county fire has run out of gas money. "Talk about the perfect storm," he said.

District 1 Supervisor Allen Ishida asked about the job descriptions of two fire captains. Hillman said they plan to have a training captain in the north county, in Dinuba Station No. 3 and one in the south county at Doyle Colony to train volunteers "and keep those two stations up and running. We are dividing the county in half and increasing training. We need more driver/operators. Woodville needs training."

Meanwhile, as the cities expand, county stations will become surrounded and eventually absorbed into the cities. "As the cities grow, the county's responsibility decreases," Hillman said.

District 3 Supervisor Phil Cox noted that the county was responsible for two fire stations that "are literally surrounded by cities. We need to contact the cities and let them know that's available," he said about the stations.

District 5 Supervisor Jim Maples said that 70-75% of responses are basically medical calls. He asked about the location of ambulances.

Gilbert said that availability of ambulances was factored into the selection of those five stations.

"We've been working with CDF 80 years and there is no question of services or dedication, it's just financially we don't have the bucks to pay the bill," Maples said. "We'll use this as a stepping stone rather than a tombstone." He said with the growth in the mountain areas, the county wants to improve fire services over the long term.

As it was laid out, two battalion chiefs will be relocated to another county. Two fire captains will train volunteers to keep the down-staffed stations open. Fifteen paid Firefighter Engineers will be relocated from five fire stations to some other county while six Firefighter IIs will be hired. The fire captains will also be training "driver/operators," which sounds very much like a firefighter engineer.

The supervisors voted unanimously in favor of these cost cutting measures.

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