Fire cuts may put heat on Exeter

By Reggie Ellis

EXETER-The Exeter City Council has scheduled a study session for 7 p.m. on Monday, May 9 to discuss the effects downstaffing at nearby county fire stations will have on Exeter.

The meeting is a public meeting but not a public hearing, so residents can attend but do not generally participate in the discussion because no action will be taken by the council.

The study session was a result of Capt. Wes Grim's report at the April 26 council meeting. During the report, Grim said that Exeter's Fire Department, Tulare County Fire Department's Station 11, would probably respond to an additional 300-500 calls each year, a 30% increase.

"It may add some response time if I am already on a call outside of Exeter and a call from within the city comes in," he said. "We basically lost two of our four engines for the area we will be covering."

The additional calls are due to the Board of Supervisors recent decision to replace full-time firefighters with paid call (or volunteer) firefighters effective Monday, May 2. Of the 33 fire stations countywide, Station No. 3 in Dinuba, No. 9 on Lovers Lane in Visalia, No. 13 in Lemon Cove, No. 17 in Woodville and No. 20 in Doyle Colony east of Porterville are now staffed only by volunteer firefighters. Fifteen engineers were replaced with six firefighters and volunteers.

"In Riverside we had seven full-time people running the same amount of equipment that I'm doing by myself," said Grim, who hasn't worked there since 1987. "I'm estimating we will probably get about 2,000 calls at this station this year. That's about what we used to do in Southern California."

The Lovers Lane station used to handle the east side of Visalia and No. 13 handled Lemon Cove to Three Rivers, both areas that Exeter is now responsible for as the closest staffed stations are Station No. 7 in Goshen to the west and Station No. 14 in Three Rivers to the east. Both Ivanhoe and Lindsay are still staffed by full-time firefighters protecting the area to the north and south of Exeter.

"I'm now responsible for everything from Visalia to Three Rivers," Grim told the council. He said he is not sure which of the surrounding stations will provide his back up, a detail that had yet to be covered.

The loss of engineers means that Exeter's fire station may also have the added responsibility of training volunteers for both the Lovers Lane and Lemon Cove stations. Grim said he normally provides four hours of training a month for volunteers in Exeter. But with no engineers, volunteers have to be trained as driver/operators of the equipment to respond to calls; otherwise, there are just bodies and no equipment to fight the fire.

"There is currently no one in Lemon Cove that can pick up an engine and drive it to the fire," Grim said.

The City of Exeter contracts with the Tulare County Fire Department, a division of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CDF), for fire service. The contract is unique to Tulare County as the cities of Visalia, Tulare, Porterville, Lindsay and Woodlake all have their own fire departments. As the calls for service to Exeter increase, more mileage and wear and tear takes its toll on Exeter Fire Department equipment, most of which was purchased by the city and not the county.

"And 99% of those calls will be on city equipment," Grim told the council. "It's a bigger burden on city equipment, so I have asked for additional engine from the county to take on county calls."

Prevention programs and school field trips may also suffer. Grim said the expanded coverage area may mean he is responsible for providing demonstrations and prevention programs to more schools. Two weeks he had a request from Union School just outside of Visalia, to come and talk to kids about 9-1-1, "Stop, drop and roll," smoke detectors, preparing an evacuation plan and other fire safety topics.

"That would normally be handled by the Visalia station so I wasn't sure what to tell them," he said. "I didn't want to tell them no but I'm not sure I can leave Exeter uncovered that long. I'm sure we are going to continue the prevention program, I'm just not sure how."

And with the county tightening its belt, prevention programs may suffer altogether as funding is continually given back to the state. Grim said one option would be to use volunteers in prevention (VIPs), those manning the booth at the Tulare County Fair, to continue fire safety programs in the schools.

"Volunteers may have to completely take over programs in the school," Grim said. "Without volunteers I don't know what we would do."

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