The news was not good as Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo stood before the San Benito County Board of Supervisors Sept. 27 to say that he had suspended the fire academy and 12 firefighters might lose their jobs by Friday, Sept. 30 if the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant he was counting on failed to materialize. They had received a reprieve in August when the Hollister City Council approved $166,000 to continue paying them for two months.
“The loss of 12 firefighters will leave me with between 23 and 27 firefighters on any given day and I will have to call back firefighters on overtime just to maintain minimum staffing,” Del Campo said. “My authorized strength is 50 and it has been a chore to recruit, train and retain them because they’re all here for one thing, to get a job as a firefighter full-time. I don’t have positions authorized to do that, so they’re getting those positions in Salinas, Monterey, San Jose, and San Francisco. I’m losing them by the droves.”
The chief explained that each reserve firefighter costs the city $15,000 to train. This includes training costs, overtime for current firefighters who are training the recruits, and personal protection equipment. While the firefighters live and work in the city and county, they take college courses in other cities because of limited community college resources in San Benito County, he added.
Del Campo said that while the city has reserve firefighters, and even Explorers who may one day enter the program, at the other end of the career spectrum there is a mass exodus of retiring baby boomers, including himself.
“I can guarantee you out of the eight (reservists) that I’ve got, I’m going to probably lose half of them to San Jose,” he said. “Once they spend their year with us and get their firefighter certificate signed off, they’re a marketable asset for the fire service industry.”
Supervisor Anthony Botelho — a former firefighter himself — interjected, “I just got to ask this question. After listening to all that, it still doesn’t make any sense to suspend the reserve fire academy.”
“I don’t have the staff to provide that academy,” Del Campo reasoned.
“You have the applicants, from what we’ve been told,” Botelho said, then suggested, “Perhaps it’s not a full-blown academy, but if you need staffing, why not just do the basics and get some more warm bodies into the system and have them pull some shifts so they can just pick up on being a firefighter? As time goes on, you could expose them to academy-type conditions. That’s the problem with grants.”
Del Campo said he agreed about the grants, stating that they’re not a sustainable program, but a Band-Aid to retain firefighters. But he disagreed with Botelho on the duration of an academy, telling him that a 13-week academy is considered basic training, as mandated by the California State Fire Marshall.
“When you went to the fire academy 20 or 30 years ago, it probably lasted all of four weeks,” he said to Botelho. “They don’t do that anymore. They’re spending 240 hours of training, and if I get your kid or your constituents through the academy and have them out there with less than 240 hours, I’m doing your family a disservice because I’m deploying assets that aren’t trained up to par. And if they kill somebody, or if they get killed, is that fair for you? I’m not lowering the standards, I’m telling you that.”
Botelho responded, “If we’re at a shortage of manpower, that should be a higher priority than to suspend it than a lot of other things going on. I would have a reserve academy thinking that that’s some of my fallback people. By suspending it, it’s another 13 weeks before it can start again if you have a change of policy. I just don’t understand that part of it.”
Del Campo explained that the ratio of students per instructors is important. He said he can’t have 20 students and only one instructor, preferring three instructors for 20 students.
“What we do isn’t classroom training,” the chief said. “These guys are lifting ladders that weigh anywhere between 75 and 100 pounds. They’re wearing helmets and safety boots. It’s not a level of training you would get from college. We need to almost have that ratio of 1-to-1 with instructors, and if I don’t have that, I can’t responsibly and safely train 20 firefighter candidates.”
He tried to assure the board that if the SAFER grant is awarded to the city by Sept. 30, the academy will be back up and running no later than December. Unfortunately, Del Campo said, many of his instructors are temporary and he could lose any one, or more, of them at any time.
Del Campo cautioned, “If we started the academy today and we lose the people on the 30th, who’s going to run the calls? That’s the issue.” He then warned that as the number of firefighters is reduced, there will be an increase in overtime, which the city pays, but he was concerned about injuries due to fatigue and workers’ comp claims.
“We’ll have longer response times,” he said, and then explained: “This week, I’m deploying four firefighters a day to provide support for the fairgrounds (where the San Benito County Fair is being held). I got a contract for $5,000, but I’m spending $9,000 to put them out there, because the community deserves good fire protection to include EMTs on a 12-hour day with a fire engine for any kind of wildland fires or anything that happens during the truck pulls. If I’m spending a little bit more money than the contract dictates, it’s worth it. People are worth $4,000.”
Del Campo described the department’s capabilities, including current staffing, the number of engines in service, and with a degree of luck, how it could achieve an ISO rating of 2, which lowers the amount of monthly insurance premiums.
“If I lose my firefighters we’ll definitely go up to a 4, and the county to a 10, and you’ll see those monthly premiums increase,” he said, and recommended that staffing should be increased in order to meet National Fire Protection Association standards. “If my overtime exceeds 10 percent of the general fund, I’ll definitely need to hire firefighters. If the population increases by 3,000, that’s an indication to hire more.”
The chief showed a slide to the board indicating the number of calls the department answered in a single month. Supervisor Margie Barrios noted that the majority of them appeared to be EMS-related.
“Why not allow the ambulance service to respond first to free you up for fires and car accidents?” she asked.
“A lot of times the ambulance service does cancel us because they get to the call before we do,” Del Campo told her. “The whole take on it is we need to stop the clock. By not stopping the clock, the brain dies from a lack of oxygen in six minutes. If an individual is in respiratory distress, whoever can get there first starts stabilization to keep that heart bumping and that brain oxygenated.”
If it were possible to have a flood of ambulances available, that would be preferable, Del Campo said, but the reality is that contracting with ambulance companies is expensive.
“They contracted with us to stop that clock,” he said. “Our firefighters are all EMT 1's, and at that level we can sustain life and bring more definitive care to the patient.”
“That tells me that you’re usually responding a lot quicker than the ambulance,” Barrios said. “Does the ambulance service reimburse the fire department for taking those calls?”
“It’s a collaboration,” Del Campo answered. “They take a lot of our calls. The reciprocity has to be there among agencies so there is a continuity of service. They know if we’re helping them with medical aid at a vehicle accident and a fire pops up, they will release us so we can deploy to the fire call.”
Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz asked that since the ambulance company bills people it helps, does the fire department do likewise? Del Campo said the fire department does not bill people.
“That’s just the cost of doing business,” he explained. “If we were to become an ambulance service, we would recover the cost, but not at a profit. Whatever it is that a private ambulance company generates, they do it for profit. We couldn’t do that. That money would go back into the general fund just to pay for the time my firefighter or paramedic was providing service to the patient.”
Supervisor Robert Rivas said he was concerned about the Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating, stating that rural county residents would be facing an ISO rating of 10, which comes with the highest premiums, if the SAFER grant is not awarded.
“They’re at significant risk, but most importantly, they’re going to have to pay huge premiums,” he said. “From all I’ve learned today and the contracts I’ve read, we have a contract where the City of Hollister is doing a poor job, an inadequate job of honoring this contract. We’ve got to work with that. I’m not pointing a finger at them. This is a community problem. We need to go back to the table and meet with our staff to have some options for our board.”
Barrios agreed with Rivas and said rural constituents already feel there is a lack of service because there are no stations close to them.
“They know if they suffer a fire or need emergency services of any kind, they’re not going to get them as quickly as people downtown,” she said. “We do have to go back to the table, sooner than later, so we can figure out some solutions.”
Rivas described the situation as, “One emergency away from having a very significant issue.” He said that there should be an agendized item for the Oct. 11 meeting to further discuss the issue.
Botelho added that it was necessary to look at the issue from a long-term perspective.
“It’s not just one year we’re trying to find funding for 12 firefighters,” he said. “We can’t approach it that way. We have to look at it as a sustainable plan going forward for not only the county, but the city. I have concerns about some of the issues with the fire department and the communication that Hollister has to the staff, our committee and the board of supervisors as far as how that money is allocated because we do have a contract right now. Both parties agreed to that contract, and as far as the costs going forward, there has to be some foresight from the administration of why we went into that contract to begin with.”
Botelho said if Hollister is in trouble it’s important to work together to resolve “their issues,” because they affect everyone in the county. Del Campo said he would be available for any sort of analysis and would provide any information the supervisors need.
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said that when the county was entering into the contract with the city, it was a difficult decision for him because his son was involved with Cal Fire at the time.
“What I saw at Cal Fire was a lack of working with volunteers and we were promised that the City of Hollister and the fire department would work to build up a reserve program,” he said, “and what I’m hearing today from the chief is that he doesn’t even have a plan for building that reserve. It’s very disturbing to me.”
Del Campo told Muenzer that it was his intent to build a reserve staff, but explained there is a significant difference between reserve and paid professionals.
“You’re not asking the police department and you’re not asking sheriff’s department to provide reserve personnel in squad cars,” he said. “I don’t think you should be asking the fire department because of the fact that what we do is a perishable skill and we do this on a 24-hour basis. You don’t want to put yourself in a position of having reserve firefighters running an entire engine, like I understand it was a couple years ago. That’s a huge liability.”
On Sept. 28, Hollister City Manager Bill Avera addressed with BenitoLink some of the comments made during the supervisors’ meeting. He said that if the county is not happy with the service being provided under the contract, the first thing they should do is let the city know what they’re not happy with so adjustments can be made.
“This is the City of Hollister’s fire department,” he said. “We’ve had this conversation before. (Neither) the county, nor San Juan Bautista, should be getting into how our fire chief operates his department.”
Avera said that no matter what the county or San Juan Bautista are paying for fire service, as long as the level of service meets the requirements stipulated within the contract, it should make no difference to them what it costs Hollister.
“I can tell you that for the $1.2 million (that the county pays), the county is getting very good service,” he said.