BASS LAKE – Cal Fire Battalion Chief Troy Cheek wasn’t sugar-coating the situation when he told the crowd in Bass Lake last week that the Madera County Fire Department is at a serious crossroads.
At a Town Hall meeting on Thursday, Aug. 27, Cheek addressed the nation-wide problem of lack of volunteers to staff local fire departments, and laid out the options for Madera County residents – either fund the fire department, or pay the insurance companies.
“The only way to get insurance rates down is to put money into the fire service,” he said, as the conversation about a half-cent sales tax to fund public safety in Madera County picks up steam.
With homeowners across the area experiencing huge bumps in their insurance rates due to Insurance Services Office (ISO) ratings, Madera County is exploring options to keep that money in the county while providing higher levels of service to residents.
ISO is a private company that rates fire departments based on such criteria as staffing levels, response times, number and location of fire stations, dispatch capabilities, personnel training and water availability, to name a few. They rate them from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best, and assign a Public Protection Classification to that fire department which many insurance companies use to set their rates.
Much of Madera County has seen a jump in their ISO rating since the fire department’s review last summer, causing increases of up to $3,500 a year for some homeowners’ insurance. Cal Fire and the County have resubmitted data to the ISO, asserting that the ratings were based on incorrect information, and asking for a reassessment.
But in the meantime, the reality of a lack of funding and a critical shortage of citizens volunteering to take on what has evolved into a daunting journey – that of becoming a Paid Call Firefighter (PCF) – and has led to a crisis for the Madera County Fire Department (MCFD), and fire departments across the nation.
One part of the problem that many may not consider, is the fact that firefighters respond for more than just fires – they are often first on scene for medical aids and traffic accidents.
Cal Fire is a state agency, funded by the State of California and staffed by career employees, that contracts with Madera County to manage all fire operations and responses. The MCFD is a County agency, funded by same, that relies on citizens to step up and become PCFs. These volunteers are paid only when they respond to fires and motor vehicle accidents. However, about 70 percent of their responses are for medical aids, for which they are not paid. It is a major commitment.
Another huge barrier to filling the ranks of the PCFs is that they must now complete all the same training as the career firefighters, which requires 280 hours of training on weekends and evenings, traveling to those sessions, and paying for all their own equipment, which Cheek says can run upwards of $3,000.
As everyone sat in the meeting room at the Pines last Thursday, Cheek asked them if they were aware of the level of fire protection in Oakhurst at that very moment.
“Do you know how many firefighters are ready to respond from Station 12?” he asked. “One. And in Bass Lake, at Station 14? One, and he’s right here in the back of the room.”
Cheek also pointed out that these PCFs have normal, full-time jobs, and normal lives, and are often out of town or doing regular family things like attending ball games with their kids. It takes a while for them to get to the station, get geared up, and respond to an incident. That slows down response time, and raises ISO ratings, thereby raising insurance rates.
Paying PCFs more for what they do, paying them for things they now do for free, and paying for their training and equipment is part of the conversation taking place, and may be crucial to getting more people willing to serve their communities in this vital way.
Without a marked increased in the number of PCFs, tough decisions will have to be made. That could include such as closing down Station 14 in Bass Lake, says Cheek.
“We have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment sitting there, with no one to man it,” says Cheek. “Without volunteers coming on board in the next year of two, we may actually have to close fire stations.”
Cheek also noted that in Cedar Valley, the two PCFs are in their 70s, though they’re still out there, often in the middle of the night, responding to the call.
Madera County has had no new fire engines or apparatus in many years, says Bill Ritchie, who spoke to the crowd from his 30 years’ experience in emergency services.
“We need to replace one piece of equipment per year in order to have safe, reliable equipment to respond,” said Ritchie. “Discretionary funds can’t fund the Madera County Fire Department. The choice is up to us. A half-cent sales tax would start the forward progress.”
A sales tax is seen by all who addressed the Bass Lake crowd as the most equitable way to go, since visitors to the area also avail themselves of the fire service when they have accidents, are injured, or start fires. Also, Madera County doesn’t have the large business tax base that a county like Fresno has.
“We have 13 Cal Fire firefighters in Madera County,” said Cheek. “They have more firefighters in one station in Fresno than we have in the whole county. We have firefighters working by themselves at our fire stations.”
The public safety tax being discussed would stay in Madera County, rather than going into the state general fund, and would be used to fund the Fire Department and the Sheriff’s Office.
MMU Unit Chief Nancy Koerperich made a detailed presentation to the Madera County Board of Supervisors back on Apr. 28, outlining the many options available to address the issue of fire protection, and more specifically, the lack of staffing, up-to-date equipment and fire stations.
“Though Cal Fire has been operating for nearly 90 years as a cooperative unit with the County, the status quo has not truly evolved with the changes to population and service levels,” said Koerperich, noting that the equipment and facilities are outdated and understaffed.
She pointed out that the number of firefighters in Madera County is the same now as it was when Cal Fire contracted with the County in 1928. The population then was about 17,000. In 2013, it was over 152,000, and yet the staffing levels are the same.
Koerperich told the Board that one-person engine companies are the norm for the Madera County Fire Department, creating difficult and unsafe working conditions for the Paid Call Firefighters, and impacting levels of service. Of the 16 fire stations in Madera County, only 6 are staffed full time with paid personnel, compared to Merced County which has 21, and Fresno with 14.
Also, Station 8 at Chukchansi is no longer being funded by the tribe, due to the closure of the casino, so the County has had to take on that liability, as they cannot afford to not have that important station staffed, says Koerperich.
The infrastructure is also severely aging, she said, with only Station 12 in Oakhurst and Station 8 at Chukchansi being newer than the average age of 37 years.
“Even if we were to get new equipment, it wouldn’t fit in most of the stations,” said Koerperich. “The new diesel engines have gained a significant height difference over the years,” adding that only 6 of the Madera County engines are newer than the replacement age of 15 years; 62 percent are older, and one is actually 34 years old.
Some of the newer equipment that firefighters use also won’t fit on the older engines, such as the Jaws of Life used to extract victims trapped in vehicle accidents, which requires a generator for power.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) develops codes and standards intended to minimize the possibility and effects of fire, and Madera County is far below the minimums.
“NFPA minimum standard for staffing is four per engine. We have one,” said Koerperich. “We don’t have pump capacity for a large fire, so we have to take numerous engines to meet the capacity. That downstaffs our other stations when they’re needed for medical aids, vehicle accidents or other fires. Somebody dying has a four-minute response time, and we don’t have the ability for our engines to back each other up.”
While NFPA standards, state and federal laws have changed significantly over the years, the fire department funding has not kept pace, and the County now finds itself years behind.
Another big issue is training. Paid Call Firefighters are now required to have the same training and certification as career firefighters, and not only have to do their regular 40-hour-a-week jobs, they have to be committed to answering the call at a moment’s notice. They have to leave their jobs, drive to the station, gear up and get their engines. That adds to response time, which also raises the ISO ratings, as does having outdated equipment and substandard water pumping capacity.
Though nearly 40 new recruits started the training to become PCFs this year, their numbers have now dwindled down to less than a dozen, illustrating the massive commitment involved in both time and money, and the crisis the County faces in the loss of the department’s most valuable resource – PCFs.
With high ISO ratings, some homeowners are having trouble selling their homes because the new buyers can’t get insurance. Others are faced with insurance bills that have doubled or tripled.
So what are the options available to the Board of Supervisors for consideration?
First of all, Koerperich says the ISO is now revisiting last year’s review, because there were some erroneous data used to arrive at their ratings. She believes there is some credit to be gained for water sources that weren’t counted, and some fire stations that were incorrectly classified.
Next, she addressed possible decreases in expenditures, saying, “we’d love to do that, but with only six stations staffed, and only one person, well you can’t do it with less than one, so we’re pretty much at the minimum.”
How about cutting salaries? The State is the negotiating agent for Cal Fire salaries, and Koerperich says her unit’s salaries are 30 percent below others of their size throughout the state due to their 72-hour shifts, as compared to those of other fire departments, which are normally 53 hours, so there’s not much to work with there.
Madera County could have their own fire department, and break with Cal Fire, but then they would have to come up with local dollars, hire personnel, and pay for things like negotiation and fire investigation. Right now, that’s all paid for by the State, and State Battalion Chiefs and Division Chiefs spend up to 80 percent of their time handling County issues, says Koerperich, so those services are now actually provided at no cost to the County’s general fund.
They could “brown out” fire stations, instead of paying overtime, but that would cause a deficiency in response times.
Engines? “The last new fire engine was purchased six years ago. There were five purchased nine years before that,” said Koerperich.
Last year, she said, they purchased two old Cal Fire engines and retrofitted them for backup engines at PCF stations. They were being auctioned off and “we got a good deal.” The remaining 18 engines range in age from 16 to 34 years.
Equipment? There has been no significant increase in operating equipment in many years, said Koerperich.
“The major increases in the budget have been staffing increases, and the State pays for those increases. We can’t really cut there,” she said, noting that new equipment is mostly acquired through grants and by PCFs purchasing such things as the new automated external defibrillators and infrared camera recently provided by the Fire Department Auxiliary at Station 11 in North Fork.
So with the revenue challenges laid out, and little room to decrease expenses, Koerperich presented ways to generate additional income, emphasizing that just one approach is not going to solve this huge problem – it will take a combination of many.
Sending County-funded engines to state and federal fires would result in reimbursements; having specialty equipment like the County’s Mobile Support Unit included in a cooperative agreement may provide a funding mechanism; and organizational restructuring through such things as a Joint Powers Authority (JPA).
“A JPA doesn’t really provide additional funding; it’s just getting two or more entities together to share costs,” said Koerperich. “You can pool money and resources for regional fire protection. But you have to have a separate governing body, so you might not have the same voice.”
Another possibility is a Fire Protection District, which also doesn’t provide more funding, but rather earmarks certain money that comes in to the County, directly to the fire district, and the Board can set what degree of revenue that is. Again, it’s just taking money from the general fund and designating it for a certain purpose, and doesn’t generate any more revenue. The fire district also has to have a separate governing body, and doesn’t solve the problem of what programs and projects will be short-changed to fund the district.
Another choice is privatized fire protection. This also does not provide for additional funding, as the money to pay a private company still comes out of the general fund and goes to them instead of Cal Fire. Also, the County wouldn’t get the benefits afforded to a State Responsibility Area (SRA) which are invaluable considering the multi-million dollar fires in the Oakhurst areas last summer. Those would have to be paid for by the County. Not a very attractive option, but an option nonetheless, and Koerperich was clear that she was presenting the Board with every possibility.
Other ideas are increasing impact fees, establishing a fee for service, charging for chronic false alarms from the same individuals, cost recovery for negligent fires and hazmat incidents, charging for followup business inspections where compliance has not been achieved, and establishing Community Facilities Districts or Community Service Areas to generate revenue earmarked for protection.
Finally, there is the option of a new tax. First there is a property tax, but both Koerperich and the Board seemed to agree that while that would generate revenue, it would not involve all the people who would benefit from increased protection.
“There would be many renters and tourists who get the benefits, but would not be part of the revenue,” said Koerperich. “Also, it competes with the difficulties imposed by the SRA fee.” The SRA fee already requires property owners to pay $150 (some receive a $35 discount) annually per parcel to fund prevention measures throughout the state, but does not go toward suppression efforts or equipment.
A sales tax, however, would require everyone to participate, including those who avail themselves of services while traveling through the area. Referred to in these discussions as a Public Safety Tax, the monies generated would conceptually be divided between the fire department and the Sheriff’s Office, another agency that has not been fully staffed in many years. The revenue collected from either a property or sales tax would be designated for use only for the fire and sheriff’s departments.
There seemed to be a consensus among the Board members that including tourists in the equation was the most equitable way to implement any new tax.
“We respond to their vehicle accidents as well,” said Koerperich, along with their medical problems and requests for law enforcement services.
Eric Fleming, Chief Administrative Officer for the County, told the Board that data from the State showed an estimated $7.5 million could be raised annually by instituting a half-cent sales tax county-wide. That number would drop to $2.5 million if it included only the unincorporated areas of the county.
“As far as increasing revenue, no one item creates a solution,” said Koerperich. “There needs to be a bit of everything to facilitate the funding you need, in order to do what you want to do with the fire department.”
As far as lowering the ISO ratings, Koerperich presented several approaches, all of which cost money of course. However the question among the Supervisors at this meeting was: do you want to give a large chunk of your money to the insurance company and see no return unless you house burns down, or do you want to invest a much smaller amount into building up and improving your fire department, and fully staffing the Sheriff’s Office, which benefits everyone over the long term?
“The high ISO ratings create a huge financial burden on our residents, that could be correspondingly alleviated by a public safety tax that would allow us to decrease our ISO rating so they have a better insurance rate,” said Chairman Rogers. “That saves the taxpayer money, and we aren’t just putting a check in the mail to the insurance company. We’re investing in something that benefits everyone.”
Koerperich had staffing at the top of the list of things that would improve ISO ratings, by raising personnel numbers and lowering response times.
Other improvement options would be purchasing water tenders that can be driven by any firefighter licensed to drive an engine. The current style water tenders can only be driven by specially licensed operators, leaving them sitting at times while a fire burns, because there is no driver available. Doubling the number of Fire Apparatus Engineers is another way to increase available drivers.
Consideration may be given to converting the North Fork and Bass Lake stations to full-time stations, and refurbishing or relocating others.
The cost of these improvements range from $1.3 million to over $9 million, and bringing the entire department up to JFPA standards would add an additional $21 million to the budget, which is now set at a woefully inadequate $4 million per year.
So County staff has been tasked with exploring these options, and county residents will likely be asked to decide whether to live with the high ISO ratings or invest in police and fire by agreeing to some sort of new revenue gathering mechanisms. One way or another, it’s not going to be free, and Supervisors seem to agree this can has been kicked down the road long enough.
Whatever the Board decides, any measure they choose will likely be on the ballot in the November 2016 elections, allowing them plenty of time to bring their case to the public and avoid the additional cost of a special election to decide the matter at an earlier date.
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler says now is the perfect time to move on this issue, and appears to be leaning toward the sales tax solution.
“We’re going to have to get out and educate the people about this problem,” he said. “Right now with the drought and the fire danger, and the ISO ratings going up, it’s time. I want our people to have the best of everything; new fire trucks, new equipment, more staff, and the time is now.”