Guest Column written by Bill Ritchey —
COARSEGOLD – As Madera County struggles to recruit and retain Paid Call Firefighters (PCF), and the Board of Supervisors considers the feasibility of a public safety tax to help fund the fire department, we noticed that Coarsegold’s Station 13 had not been called out for some time.
A call to Cal Fire confirmed that Coarsegold’s Madera County Volunteer Fire Department No. 13 was disbanded over a year ago. Battalion Chief Jeff McCarroll, Madera County Fire/Cal Fire spokesman, said on Friday that this action was taken in 2014 after the ranks of PCFs in Coarsegold fell to just two or three active members.
McCarroll said that Co. 13’s remaining PCFs were re-assigned to Chukchansi Station 8. Engine 13 and Water Tender 13 were relocated to Station 8 as well, where a new volunteer company is being developed.
Nine PCFs have been recruited to assist Station 8’s two full-time firefighters on duty 24/7, said McCarroll. Oakhurst Station 12 and Chukchansi Station 8 are now covering Coarsegold emergencies. Coarsegold Cal Fire Station will also respond an engine, when staffed and available. That station is not usually staffed full time in the winter months, but due to the drought conditions, staffing was extended this year.
The closure of Madera County’s Coarsegold station reflects a progressive decline in the number of PCFs available for emergency response in Madera County.
Paid Call Firefighters are those traditionally known as “volunteer firefighters.” They are the men and women who make up the Madera County Fire Department, which operates under a contract with Cal Fire. They respond to wrecks, fires, medical aids and many other types of emergencies, however, about two-thirds of their calls are for medical aids, for which they are not compensated, and are rewarded only by fulfilling their sense of duty to the communities they serve.
When you dial 911, chances are, the first on scene to assist you will include PCFs. Although call volume has increased over the years, the number of volunteers has declined.
With growing populations, especially in cash-strapped rural counties such as Madera County, these volunteers play a crucial role in bolstering the ranks of career firefighters (Cal Fire), and keeping response times at acceptable levels. They also provide water tender response, something Cal Fire does not have.
County Fire policy authorizes each PCF company a strength of twenty members, although the actual number at most stations is far less than twenty.
Various consultants and advisors reported to the Madera County Board of Supervisors in 2008, and again in 2014, noting staffing deficiencies of both full-time and paid-call personnel may impair the effectiveness of fire department response and pose hazards to firefighters. Water tender response is also unpredictable throughout the county due to reduced numbers of qualified volunteer driver-operators.
This past Sunday, Water Tender 8 and Water Tender 18 (Cedar Valley), along with Engine 15 (Raymond), were assigned to the valley floor for lengthy assignments. Eastern Madera County fire resources were needed in the vicinity of Avenue 12 and Road 19, after a commercial wood chip and firewood yard caught fire. Engine 10 (Yosemite Lakes) covered Station 9 in Rolling Hills, as well. The wood yard fire came on the heels of a residential structure fire north of Madera, which depleted nearly all Madera valley fire resources.
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler was asked for his thoughts on the diminishing ranks of PCFs in the county, and the scant coverage of the mountain area when incidents call our engines to other assignments.
“These issues demonstrate that Madera County doesn’t have adequate resources and funding to keep fire stations adequately staffed,” he said. He also voiced his concern for those who face steep fire insurance premiums, and supports a public safety sales tax ballot measure that would augment fire department funding.
At its Jan. 26 meeting, the Board of Supervisors took the first step toward placing a public safety sales tax measure on the November 2016 general election ballot. The additional sales tax rate discussed varies from 0.5% to 0.9%. Madera County’s sales tax rate is currently 8.0%.
As a special tax, revenues must be reserved for funding fire service and law enforcement, exclusively. The Board has stated that as much as 80 percent of new revenue may be allocated to the needs of the Fire Department, with the balance going to the Sheriff’s Office.
On Tuesday, Apr. 9, the Board of Supervisors will consider awarding a $185,202 contract to Fresno based VRPA Technologies, to provide financial research, community outreach, opinion research, and an expenditure plan for the potential public safety tax measure.
Meanwhile, Chief McCarroll says the Madera County Fire Department is actively recruiting new PCFs to join the department. Interested parties are asked to contact Oakhurst Station 12 at 559-683- 8048, or Chukchansi Station 8 at 559-683-8008, for more information and applications.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles from Bill Ritchey, who, over the next several months, will be exploring the challenges, current conditions and potential solutions to the issues facing the Madera County Fire Department. Bill is a resident of Raymond. With a Masters of Science degree in Nurse Anesthesia, he has been an anesthesia provider for 21 years, and has worked extensively providing trauma and critical care anesthesia at the regional trauma center in Fresno. He is very involved in advocacy for local emergency services, and helped formulate policy for pre-hospital advanced life support by ambulance personnel and fire department first responders in Madera County. He also served as a first responder trainer for Madera City and County Fire Departments.