By Reggie Ellis
Steve Sunderland's career with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention came full circle on Aug. 1 when he became the new fire chief for Tulare County, headquartered at the county's fire station on Lovers Lane and Walnut Avenue in Visalia.
"It's like I have returned home," he said.
Sunderland, 52, began his career as a seasonal firefighter at the Lovers Lane station in his junior year at Porterville Union High School in 1970. In 1981 he became a field trainee in the Sierra region. A year later he was a fire captain for the Fresno-Kings unit of CDF, the state's fire department, which is contracted by rural counties for fire service in areas like the Central Valley.
Sunderland continued to climb the fire ladder in the Valley until he became fire chief for the Fresno County Fire Distrct in November 2001. The district, which he said is the largest in the state and possibly in the nation, encompasses Prather, Caruthers, Sanger and Reedley. Fresno County is made up of five separate fire districts, the other four being Orange Cove, Fig Garden, Bald Mountain and Northwest, which includes Kerman.
"There are some areas that have no fire service," Sunderland said. "Under the state's contitution county's are not required to provide fire service. Most choose to do so."
It was during his time in Fresno that Sunderland began working with an escalating budget crisis similar to what Tulare County is experiencing now. Sunderland said from 2001-2005, CDF increased its fees 35% for all contracts with government agencies. After research found that passage of a tax initiative was shaky at best, the board of supervisors decided to close one station and reduce the number of full-time engineers. The strategy paid off, and $4 million in reserves was enough to cover a $2 million hit over the last two years.
"I'm not new to this type of situation," he said.
The situation is that on May 1, Tulare County downstaffed five of its stations from full-time engineers to volunteer only. The county is hoping the cuts will alleviate salaries from the budget without sacrificing service for enough saving to cover the $1.8 million payment deferred by CDF for its services during the current five-year contract.
But service has already been affected. Exeter is stretched thin from Visalia to Lake Kaweah, leaving the city vulnerable when the engine is out of town on a call. Lemon Cove is still without anyone trained to operate its only engine and the county is unsure if any volunteers will be willing to go through the necessary 100 hours of training while trying to balance their day job and families.
"I can't speak to why Tulare County is just now addressing this," Sunderland said.
While he spent much of his career in Fresno County, Sunderland never really left Tulare County. He and his wife, Janet, have lived in Dinuba more than 21 years. Their two children, Eric, 21, and Ashlee, 18, both attended school in the Dinuba Unified School District where Janet has been teaching special education for 26 years.
Sunderland is actively involved in the community. He served on the Dinuba Planning Commission for five years, the city's Parks and Recreation Commission for one year, has been a Rotarian for 10 and is currently in his second term as chair of the Dinuba Presbyterian Church's board of trustees.
"I think the lack of community service in the younger generation is part of the problem with recruiting new paid call firefighters," Sunderland said of the volunteer force on which Tulare County relies heavily for its manpower. "Just look around at your community service clubs and organizations like Lions or Kiwanis. The average age is 60-65."
Sunderland said many of today's volunteers are motivated more by a career in firefighting than volunteerism. He said the younger paid call firefighters in the 25-45 age range are part of a more me-driven society where free time and time at home are higher priorities than community service.
Recruitment, Sunderland said, will be a major element of creating a more efficient Tulare County Fire Department. He said he hopes incentives such as health benefits for paid call firefighters will be enough to attract the younger generation
"Any service club has a purpose. Lions is vision care. Kiwanis was the elimination of polio. Fire service is public safety."
The other major component is updating the county's strategic master plan for fire service, something that hasn't been done in more than 50 years. He said CDF staff is already looking at how the county can reposition and reallocate manpower and resources to provide better coverage of all communities in the county. That will also include working closely with municipal fire stations and fire districts on finding state funding through CDF grant opportunities and improving mutual aide agreements and response.
"Regardless of city or county, we are all in this together," Sunderland said. "We are a network of agencies all operating toward the same goal - better fire service."
Welcome home, chief.