After Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo told the city council Aug. 1 that he was hopeful the federal government would again approve the fire department’s application for a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant, the council approved a resolution to provide supplemental funding, from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, in order to retain 11 expired firefighters until the grant takes effect.
“The federal government just started awarding grants July 9, and they’re not through even the first third of the $300 million that they have to award before Sept. 30,” Del Campo said. “This resolution would give us permission to reinstate the firefighters who were recently released from employment, bringing them back on duty and wait until we get the notification.”
The chief said he was optimistic that Hollister would receive the grant because all the criteria of the grant had been met and under the grant guidelines the fire department was deemed to be understaffed for the area it covers. He said the grant will be for $2.2 million, which when added to the previous grant, will total $4.6 million.
“This (resolution before the council) is $166,000 for two months and will bring our personnel back up to an adequate level of staffing for this time period,” he said. “I’ll probably be coming back here and asking for more funds for more personnel, but for right now, I need to put these folks back to work.”
Del Campo said the previous week, in which there were responses to several fires, was a good example of what the department is facing.
“In one hour I had five calls and I had to ask for mutual aid from Gilroy and Santa Clara County,” he said. “Last week I went to Gilroy and had to thank the fire chief for providing an engine and I told him as soon as we get staffing up to par I’m going to provide the same service that he did with me. It’s good to have a collaboration between jurisdictions, but it’s not long-lived and it's got to be reciprocal. I can’t keep taking and taking. I need to provide that mutual service.”
Councilman Raymond Friend suggested that the chief come back to the council with a “Plan B,” just in case the federal grant was not approved.
“What are we going to do Oct. 1?” Friend asked. “We’re going to be in the same boat and I don’t think we have the funds to keep paying this out.”
Del Campo agreed and said that with the budget under which he is presently operating, conditions are not sustainable.
“The contracts that we’re maintaining right now with San Juan Bautista and San Benito County are contracts that we’ll try to satisfy, but like the U.S. Constitution, in its first year it was amended 10 times, so I don’t have a problem saying we need to do something about this if they want to have the staffing and service.”
Councilman Karson Klauer wanted to know if the chief found out as soon as the following Friday that the grant had been approved how long it would take for the funding to begin. Del Campo said it would be the same day, but with a catch.
“We probably won’t get it for about 90 days, but with the general election, it could be up to 120 days,” Del Campo said. “But we know we will get it.”
Klauer described the process before the council as a “worst-case scenario,” and agreed with Friend that other options needed to be considered for a long-term solution and that it should happen within two weeks.
Councilwoman Mickie Luna wanted to know how many firefighters were currently working. Del Campo said there were 26 firefighters, not counting himself, covering 1,400 square miles. She asked him if the ratio of fire fighters to residents was sufficient. Del Campo said it wasn’t.
“The ratio is supposed to be one firefighter to every 1,000 people,” he said. “We’ve got 57,000 people and at our best we’ve got 41 firefighters. On a regular basis, we’re understaffed when it comes to providing service to a geographical area like this. Even at the structure fire that the young lady (Madison Kashiwagi) was recognized as a hero, after the first five minutes I was understaffed by eight firefighters.”
Del Campo explained how he was legally prevented by state and federal laws from allowing the first two firefighters on the scene to enter the burning structure until another engine had arrived to provide backup.
“Because it’s an A-type personality industry, they were chomping at the bit to get inside,” he said, “and in that time we were waiting for another engine, damage was being done to the house. Every two minutes a fire doubles in size.”
Luna reasoned that even with 12 firefighters the department would still be considered understaffed. Del Campo said that was the case. Luna said that was an obvious safety issue for the community and Del Campo said it would also be a safety issue for the firefighters.
“We’ve got a tendency to make entry and do our job to stop the fire where it’s at, and one of my greatest fears is that there can be an injury or worse just doing what we normally do with an inadequate staff,” he said.
Luna asked, considering the fires that are burning in nearby counties, if any Hollister firefighters are on call. Del Campo answered that the chief of the Monterey CalFire had asked him if Hollister could provide one engine with four firefighters.
“I told him a week or so ago that we were losing 11 people and that both of my engines are in the valley getting repaired,” he said. “So, I told him no, and I said as soon as I find out where we’re at with the SAFER grant and if I can get one engine up and running, we will be available on the spot.”
Del Campo explained that with the resources he has, he needs to concentrate on serving the greater number of people and that is in Hollister.
Resident Tim Burns said he was concerned about the circumstances the city is in with the lack of firefighters and described the proposed resolution as a “gap funding for a more permanent situation.” He commented that the earlier discussion during the council meeting about extending the sales tax to help fund police and fire is not a real solution. He wondered why the city was in the current situation when everyone knows the sales tax will sunset next March.
“This is a predictable situation and preventable,” he said. “With regard to the 11 firefighters it’s unacceptable and it makes no sense to hire them, train them, and then lay them off. I would encourage you, as council, to direct staff to take action to find a permanent funding solution beyond the grant and beyond the tax. We can’t continue down this path. This is a problem and we’re encouraging new development and the police and fire calls are going to continue to increase.”
Burns agreed with Del Campo that even with the 11 firefighters back on the job, the fire department will still be understaffed.
“Without a safe city, nothing else matters,” Burns said and wondered if a decrease in fire response capability would mean an increase in homeowners’ fire insurance rates. He also wondered that if there were too few firefighters how much overtime would have to be paid. “Something needs to be done now. Take the short term and support the chief’s request, and let’s get those firefighters back on the job.”
Hollister resident Marty Richman commented that firefighters don’t just respond to fires.
“What everybody forgets is firefighters respond to accidents,” he said. “These are the same folks who come to your house if you have a heart attack; they pry you out of a wreck; and they have a lot more responses that they have to do to wrecks and medical than they do to fires.”
He said there’s no sense having two engines if they have to be sent to the San Joaquin Valley to be repaired. He reminded the council of past discussions about the county maintaining the heavy equipment, which would not include fire trucks because of special licensing requirements.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez reminded those present that when the city first applied for the SAFER grant it was with the understanding that it was a four-year grant.
“The federal government, being what it is, has put us in this position,” he said. “Part of the plan was within that four years we were going to work to try to have a county-wide district, where the county and city work together. The people have to understand this costs money and it’s important that they’re (firefighters) there and ready. Otherwise, when you need them and they’re not there, it costs lots of money. That was the whole idea of the partnership and, hopefully, the feds will keep their word to give us the opportunity to get there."