MADERA COUNTY – Most people are likely not aware that the majority of Madera County fire stations are not manned, and sit empty until the Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs or Volunteers) assigned to those stations are called up.
People also may not realize that there is only one firefighter on duty in Oakhurst, and that the first engines they see on scene of a fire, accident or other emergency are likely staffed by Cal Fire personnel, not Madera County firefighters. There is a difference.
PCFs are serious, dedicated firefighters with the same training as Cal Fire personnel. They have to respond from their homes or jobs, drive to the station and get geared up before responding, so the fact that they are not on duty at their station unavoidably adds extra time to their response. But they are the Madera County Fire Department.
To help the public understand how our local fire response works, we spoke to Matt Watson, Madera County Administrative Battalion Chief – former Fire Chief and a firefighter since 1994 – for details on the County Fire Department and the agreement with Cal Fire.
The Madera County Fire Department consists of 15 stations (see map below), 2 of which have been closed – Dairyland and Coarsegold – due to a lack of PCFs.
Fifteen stations serve the unincorporated areas of the county, and two serve the City of Madera.
Only 5 of the 15 Madera County funded stations are manned, with one firefighter on duty at any given time. One serves the Chowchilla prison, and is staffed by same. Station 8 in Coarsegold has two firefighters on duty, funded through an MOU with the Chukchansi Casino. The remaining stations are not staffed, but Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs) respond from those stations when available.
In January of this year, developer fees from the new Riverstone subdivision on Avenue 12 paid to put a second firefighter at Station 9. Until that time, there were just five firefighters on duty at all Madera County Fire Department stations at any given time. Now there are six – five in the Valley and one in Oakhurst at Station 12. The MOU with Chukchansi brings the total to eight.
The following is a list of the Madera County Fire stations and staffing. The PCFs listed are those who are current on their training and licensing, according to Watson. It does not mean they are all available to respond when called out.
Station 1 – Madera – One firefighter on duty – Eight PCFs
Station 2 – Chowchilla – Not staffed – Three PCFs
Station 3 – Madera Acres – One firefighter on duty – Two PCFs
Station 4 – Dairyland – Closed
Station 5 – Chowchilla Women’s Prison – Staffed by prison – respond when available
(Stations 6 & 7 serve the city of Madera, they are not County Stations)
Station 8 – Coarsegold Road 417 – Staffed and funded through an MOU with Chukchansi Casino. Two firefighters on duty – Five PCFs
Station 9 – Rolling Hills – Two firefighters on duty, increased from one starting Jan. 1, funded through development agreement with new Riverstone Subdivision – No PCFs
Station 10 – Yosemite Lakes Park – Not staffed – Eleven PCFs
Station 11 – North Fork – Not staffed – Four PCFs
Station 12 – Oakhurst – One firefighter on duty – Seven PCFs (note: there are three pieces of equipment at this station – two engines and a squad – but only one firefighter.)
Station 13 – Coarsegold – Closed
Station 14 – Bass Lake – Not Staffed – One PCF
Station 15 – Raymond – Not Staffed – Four PCFs
Station 16 – Awhawnee – Not Staffed – Four PCFs
Station 17 – O’Neals – Not Staffed – Three PCFs
Station 18 – Cedar Valley – Not Staffed – Four PCFs
Station 19 – Bonnadelle Ranchos – One firefighter on duty – Fifteen PCFs
Madera County has a cooperative agreement contract with Cal Fire – the State fire agency – to manage the County Fire Department, staff the Madera County stations that have firefighters on duty, and manage the PCF program. The cost to the County for the contract in 2016/2017 is $5,860,010.
Firefighters at Stations 1, 3, 8, 9, 12, and 19 are Cal Fire personnel. The agreement provides for those employees, and the County doesn’t have to pay when they retire or go out on workers compensation, says Watson.
Cal Fire’s primary mission is wildland protection within the State Responsibility Area (SRA). There are five Cal Fire stations in Madera County – in Ahwahnee, Bass Lake (Road 223), Coarsegold, Raymond and North Fork (Rancheria).
Typically, Cal Fire stations close during the six months of winter, and there would be no one to respond to structure fires, vehicle accidents, medical aids or any other emergencies. But Madera County has an Amador contract with Cal Fire to keep those stations staffed 24/7 during the winter. That plan requires a minimum staffing level of two per engine. When people see two or three or four firefighters show up in a Cal Fire engine, it’s due to Cal Fire’s requirements for adequate staffing.
The contract with Cal Fire also provides a Fire Chief, a Division Chief, Battalion Chiefs and Prevention staff, functioning within the Fire Department on a daily basis.
“There is no duplication of services at an extra cost to the County,” says Watson. “The State pays for the Battalion Chiefs in the SRA and they take on the County Battalion Chief responsibilities.”
The County Fire Department is also dispatched out of the Cal Fire Emergency Command Center in Mariposa, saving the County the cost of their own dispatch system.
Watson addresses the issue of Madera County having only one firefighter on an engine, saying that when a firefighter shows up on scene of a fire, there are things that must be done before any water is sprayed on that fire.
“They have to walk around the structure checking for people; turn off power, propane and gas lines; and report on conditions to incoming units – all before they start squirting water,” says Watson.
“With two people, you have one getting firefighting tools, hose and water ready, while the second shuts off electricity and gas and makes sure the structure is safe. If you add a third person, you have one doing the walk-around, while the other two get ready to go fight fire.”
It actually takes a minimum of four to fight a structure fire, he says, because the rule for firefighting is “two in, two out.”
Watson describes a recent hose drill where firefighters responded to a house fire, and were timed on how long it took to get water on the fire. He points out that a household fire doubles in size every two minutes.
“During our drill with one person on an engine, from the time they got there to the time they started squirting water, was 12 minutes and 7 seconds. That dropped to 6 minutes with 2 people, and 4 minutes with 3 people. When you add a second body to an engine, it doesn’t shorten drive time, but does reduce the amount of time to when you can start working significantly.”
Watson says the low staffing levels also cause problems during medical aid calls.
“We have those engines out there responding by themselves, and it takes two people to do CPR properly,” says Watson. “There’s not always a volunteer available to respond to a call, so we have to put one person in the back of ambulance assisting the paramedic with CPR.
“That firefighter goes in the ambulance, literally leaving their engine sitting by the side of the road or in someone’s driveway. That engine has to be secured by another firefighter or a deputy, so now you have two engines out of service. Typically a Battalion Chief has to go to the hospital to pick the firefighter up, because the ambulance isn’t guaranteed to get back. They may be diverted to a new call. If you had two people on an engine, that engine would still be in service, as would the second engine sent out to secure it.”
Watson wants to make it clear that Paid Call Firefighters are crucial to the operation of the Madera County Fire Department, and notes that PCFs are not currently paid for medical aids, which make up over two-thirds of their calls. It also costs them over $3,000 and a massive investment of time to go through the process.
Firefighters don’t just put out fires, they respond for a wide variety of incidents including vehicle accidents and medical emergencies; they respond for faulty smoke and carbon monoxide detectors; they are dispatched to help people who have fallen or need to be lifted into a vehicle; they are called out to shootings and stabbings, people leaving pots on the stove, air conditioners making weird noises, animals stuck in culverts, people smelling gas, and trees falling on houses and propane tanks, just to name a few.
To learn more about PCFs, their training and dedication, and the monetary investment it takes to become a firefighter, click the links below.