Hollister Fire Department Station #1. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Hollister Fire Department Station #1. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The 2022-23 San Benito County Civil Grand Jury raises issues with the Hollister Fire Department regarding leadership, staff shortages and equipment maintenance.

The report, which was submitted June 26 and approved by the court July 13, states jurors toured all the fire stations, conducted interviews with fire department personnel and reviewed the previous grand jury reports as well as statistical data, media releases and social media posts relating to the department. 

Leadership issues

Grand jury interviews with staff revealed repeated complaints of “disjointed and fragmented leadership.” The report claims that “Station captains and battalion chiefs have vastly differing priorities, incompatible styles, and incongruent expectations for their teams”

Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo came under criticism for his “extended absence and apparent ‘laissez-faire’ leadership style.” The report claims a cohesive command structure has led to unnecessary stress and frustration in the ranks. It says there has been little mentoring or support in leadership development as each station adopts its own style and expectations. 

Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo and San Benito County Sheriff Eric Taylor discuss the unfolding situation during flood. Photo by John Chadwell.
Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo (left) and San Benito County Sheriff Eric Taylor discuss the unfolding situation during the January 2023 flooding. Photo by John Chadwell.

Del Campo said in response, “The City of Hollister takes great consideration of the Civil Grand Jury report’s findings and recommendations. With respect to the grand jury process, staff will present written responses to the grand jury regarding the report’s findings and recommendations within the allotted time frame.”

California law requires affected agencies and governing bodies—Hollister’s City Council and Fire Department—to respond to the report within 90 days after the report’s approval date.

Staff shortages and stress

Observing that fire department personnel are critical and valued assets in the community, the report concludes that staffing shortages and equipment issues are a constant source of stress in what is already a challenging profession, stretching thin the agency’s ability to handle emergencies.

The report posited that if there were a vehicle accident on Hwy 101 near San Juan Bautista, a smoke investigation near Panoche and a medical call in Hollister, it would exhaust the department’s resources, leaving it unable to respond to other emergencies.

The report notes that only two ambulances are contracted in the entire county, so critical responses are often delayed, and firefighters are trained only in Basic Life Support rather than Advanced Life Support. 

Noting that first responders deal with accidents, burn victims, industrial accidents, drownings and death investigations, fire department personnel often suffer from chronic stress and cumulative trauma. Staff interviews revealed a desire among employees for trained medical experts to conduct stress debriefings and provide individual support to replace debriefings by battalion chiefs.

The report added that HFD not only responds to fires in Hollister but in 2013 it entered into an agreement with the County to provide emergency response support to San Juan Bautista and throughout the unincorporated county areas.

Response times

According to the grand jury, population growth in the county since 2010 justifies two additional stations, and the department should be staffed by no fewer than 100 personnel. Noting that the department is able to respond to 90% of calls within eight or nine minutes, the grand jury quotes the California Fire Code as recommending an optimal response time of four to five minutes. The grand jury also referred back to a 2001-02 report that set an unmet goal for a five-minute response time.

According to the report, the department has been considering a plan to move the airport station to the Cal Fire facility on San Felipe Road, which would provide faster response times and allow for an expanded office of emergency services. Cal Fire would then move to the former airport fire station to better support air units used in fire suppression.

There are three fire stations located in Hollister: Station #1 is at 110 5th Street, Station #2 at 2240 Valley View and Station #4 at the Hollister Airport. An additional facility, Station #3, is in San Juan Bautista at 24 Polk Street. The department has 48 full-time employees, and each station is staffed by at least three personnel 24 hours a day.

The department provides fire and emergency services to the city of Hollister, including responses to fires, natural disasters, automobile accidents, rescues, medical emergencies and other critical events. Since 2013, the department has also provided those services to the city of San Juan Bautista as well.

Problems with equipment

The report includes an inventory of the equipment located at each of the four stations in need of repair or replacement:

  • Station #1: Rescue R-61, a rescue truck, was due for replacement in 2021.
  • Station #2: Engine E-1, a pumper, is currently out of service with body damage. Engine E-642, a wildland fire engine, suffers from electrical issues due to body damage. S-65, a light unit truck, was due for replacement in 2021.
  • Station #3: Engine E-13, a pumper that is due for replacement in 2024, is currently experiencing electrical issues.
  • Station #4: Engine E-14, a pumper, is experiencing multiple electrical issues and a malfunctioning pump primer. Engine E-332, a wildland 4×4, was due for replacement in 2018

Additionally, a ladder truck, designated as T-71, is still in the design phase and is not scheduled to come online for another two to three years.

Traffic calming 

Recent traffic calming measures installed by the city of Hollister, such as speed bumps and humps, have had a negative impact on emergency responses, according to the report. Intended to be spaced in a way that would allow engines to straddle the humps, they were not placed in a way that considered the width of various types of equipment. As a result, an extra six to 10 seconds is required to slow down enough to navigate each bump which can cause delays of several minutes in emergency responses. Roundabouts also can cause delays for larger response vehicles. 

Grand jury recommendations 

  1. The county and the fire department administration must work together on any changes to local roads, such as traffic calming measures, to minimize negative impacts.
  1. Implement a 48/96 schedule (two days on, three days off) for staff as soon as possible and within the next six months.
  1. Mental health services, stress management and a peer support team should be implemented as the highest priority. Mental health professionals should be incorporated into stress management debriefings rather than using ranking staff.
  1. Policy and procedure manuals should be clear, regularly maintained and readily available to all personnel and be referred to regularly by the fire chief and battalion chiefs. The grand jury also asserted that the fire chief and battalion chiefs would benefit from additional leadership training.

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