Guest Column by Chris Christopherson —
As a resident and conservative I am against taxes as much as anyone. But we have come to a crossroads when it comes to the staffing of our County Fire Department.
Madera County began a Cooperative agreement with CAL FIRE to manage the County Fire Dept. in 1928. This is the longest Cooperative relationship in the state. It began with about 5 stations with 1 person each being staffed in the Valley. In the mid 80s, the impact of Proposition 13 caused the County to reduce funding to 1 station in Madera (Station 1).
About 1988 the County provided funds to staff 2 more stations which is when Oakhurst (Station 12) began with staff at the library and Madera Acres (Station 3). The Ranchos (Station 19) was staffed in the 1990s, and Rolling Hills (Station 9) opened with Children’s Hospital. All again with 1 person at each station. Since that time Chukchansi funded Station 8. During these times, laws and training were less restrictive and we had over 300 volunteer firefighters County-wide.
Fast forward to 2017 — we still almost have the same number of staffed stations County-wide. The population of the County is not even comparable. We have over 2 million visitors each year traveling to Yosemite. During this history, past Boards of Supervisor have never raised taxes for public safety. Deals were made with developers to promote building, but at the cost of public safety.
Now we are faced with updated CAL OSHA mandates that require our PCFs [Paid Call Firefighters or Volunteers] to meet all the same minimum training standards as a career firefighters — which is a very good thing, however it takes nearly 200 hours of training and over $3,000 in safety gear for each PCF just to respond. Being safe is not cheap.
So now we are doing a lot more with the sames staffing levels we’ve had since 1928, covering a larger area of the County. With OSHA mandates, we can no longer enter a burning building to put out a fire by ourselves. We need at least 4 firefighters at a scene geared up ready to go before we can go in. These laws have been put into place for safety of firefighters and many have lost their lives — both volunteer and career — before this went into place.
In the Valley there are areas in the north and west where it may take over 45 minutes to get 4 engines to the scene. In the mountains, it’s even worse. We have depended on the extra help of our CAL FIRE Stations to fill the void. In the past few years that security blanket has gotten pulled away. CAL FIRE has been taken out of the area for fires more often. Now with flooding, CAL FIRE will be tasked in other areas of the state. That leaves us totally dependent on our County Fire Department.
We have been very “lucky” we have not lost a firefighter in the line of duty. But we have lost firefighters who died within days of being on fires for extended periods of time, either a house or wildland fire. We are gambling with people’s lives. People who have families. People that are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. At what point do we stop expecting Firefighters and Deputies to constantly put themselves in life threatening situations because we don’t want to pay more taxes but want the services?
In my over 20 years of firefighting and law enforcement I have been to far too many funerals. Funerals of men and women who didn’t make it to retirement. Who never saw the 5th birthday of a son. Who never made it to their own wedding. Who never had the chance to enjoy all the things we take for granted. Every Firefighter and Deputy has a face, is a person, has a family.
We have come to a crossroads where we must make the choice. Are we OK with things the way they are, or will we “Back the Badge?” Start taking a step in the right direction to staff more stations with career firefighters (Bass Lake, North Fork, Chowchilla/Fairmead). Have a second firefighter on each staffed engine. Add 9 additional deputies to target crime and back each other up, while providing for quicker response times and safer work conditions. Paying our PCFs for all their training and calls for service to which they respond, while reducing response times, improving services and possibly lowering our insurance rates. It’s sad that people will pay insurance for a fire but don’t want to pay pennies to have someone respond when they have a car crash or medical emergency.
I support Measure L not because I’m for taxes, but because I’m for making things better. Measure L has a defined expenditure plan, has Citizen Oversight, has accountability to prevent future Supervisors from taking the monies for other projects. Being a sales tax, everyone who purchases supports it. It’s not just funded by property owners.
Regardless if you end up with a station in your neighborhood, we will all reap the benefits. I ask that you do your due diligence to educate yourself and vote.