Government / Politics

Fire coverage a hot topic for local officials

Committee meeting offers update on fire protection capabilities for county and need to move toward establishing fire district

Will Sutton, senior vice president of Heritage Bank of Commerce, said at the San Benito County Fire Advisory Committee meeting Sept. 1 that he was concerned about two things: that he had only learned by happenstance about the meeting and that if building permits were going to be continually approved then there needs to be adequate fire protection. He said he was also concerned about possible layoffs of firefighters and asked the advisory board to come up with an allocation plan to assure the first responders stay on the job.

When Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo followed Sutton to give his monthly briefing to the committee, the first thing he had to say was that the reserve fire academy was suspended until further notice.

The chief said “further notice” would only come if the federal government approves by Sept. 30 the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant for a second time. The $2.2 million grant would assure the academy’s operation, as well as two more years of employment for 12 firefighters who were released when the first grant expired and then reprieved for 60 days when the city approved $166,000.

Del Campo’s presentation included details of new state standards of training to which the Hollister Fire Department must adhere; secure biannual documentation of training by using a Watsonville facility to satisfy ISO (Insurance Services Office) requirements that would improve insurance rates for the city. He also reported that the new water tender, which the city had approved and paid 10 percent of the approximate $540,000 price tag funded by a reimbursement from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), had arrived and firefighters were being trained to operate it.

“We’ll report that information to FEMA to let them know it’s in service and then we start collecting our reimbursement,” Del Campo said, and then invited everyone to come outside after the meeting to see the vehicle. “It’s a tactical Type 1 water tender and we definitely could have used it last month during the fire surge.”

Del Campo said he had intended to station one of the two water tenders the city now has at Fire Station No. 4 in San Juan Bautista, but it turned out that both are too big to fit into the building. He said he did not want to keep the new rig outside exposed to the elements. He reported that while the old water tender could hold 3,500 gallons, the new tender’s capacity is 3,000 gallons. San Juan Bautista Councilman Jim West expressed amazement that the new tender not only held less water, but that no one knew beforehand it would not fit into the station.

Del Campo explained that because of the requirements placed on a Type 1 rig, it required more height to account for the center of balance for maneuverability and that the building was built long before the concept of such water tenders.

Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez wanted to know what the difference in insurance rates would be if the ISO rating were reduced. Del Campo did not have a figure. Velazquez asked him to find out, so the public could be better informed about the savings. Del Campo said a reduction in the insurance rating was dependent on a number of factors, including several years of training records, the water supply and communications systems, pump capacity and training facilities.

“The training facility has to be in place,” Del Campo said. “We can’t just say we’re using a parking lot as a training facility. They (ISO) want to know that we can go into a confined space and even go aloft to fight fires.”

Velazquez wanted the chief to provide insurance figures, saying that the public needed to understand the savings they will receive by lowering the insurance rating.

“It’s like Highway 25 (Measure P), ‘we want a better road, but we don’t want to pay for the road, but fix the road,’” Velazquez said. “We need their help and the public needs to understand how they’re saving money.”

Hollister City Councilman Raymond Friend questioned whether there was enough water capacity at the Rosa Morada and Fairview roads location where Station No. 3 would be built to cover northern San Benito County. Del Campo said the infrastructure at the location isn’t as robust as it is in the city.

“That’s why (former Hollister Fire) Chief (Mike) O’Connor wanted to get a tactical water tender to provide support out there because once that station gets built, that’s where the water tender will go,” Del Campo said. “That’s a greater population and more dense capacity. It can also help Santa Clara County, and it will go down south too and to San Juan Bautista.”

The response time for a water tender was more than three hours to get to a fire near New Idria, in the south county, Del Campo noted.

County Supervisor Anthony Botelho commented, “When you choose to live out in the country, you won’t get city-level service. That’s the reality of things. Projects that go in now there’s a water requirement of the tank holding capacity. If you get beyond that, your house is going to burn down anyway, water tank or no water tank. That’s why a lot of these houses now will have three, 5,000-gallon tanks and they’re supposed to have a fire connection available.”

During the apparatus status portion of his report to the committee, Del Campo reported that while the fire utility vehicles are still efficient, they are aging and are undergoing conversions to keep them running rather than buying new vehicles. He said his own staff vehicle has broken down at least four times and they should not be surprised to see a report from him requesting a new vehicle. He said engine No. 11 is down for annual service and that bids are out for two Type 6 trucks that the city has already agreed to purchase. He said they will be used to respond to medical calls to relieve the big engines from having to respond. The new water tender is currently being outfitted with hoses and tools.

In a long discussion about the requirements for establishing a fire district that would serve the entire county and two cities, Del Campo began listing statistics on future staffing levels needed to prepare for it.  He told the committee that the figures were only for them to take back to their respective boards and councils, while Muenzer said a formal resolution was needed in order to discuss the steps needed to develop a fire district. He said they were just spinning their wheels without direction from the council and board.

Friend said that he agreed with Botelho, but he intended to ask Del Campo to give the report at the Intergovernmental Committee meeting to determine if various government agencies wanted to move toward a fire district and how they would get there. Friend said he just wanted to hear where Del Campo was in the process to see if he was ready to make the same report to the other government entities.

“That way, we know, in concept, that everybody agrees that we need to go to a special district or just stay the way we are,” Friend said.

“I hear what these guys are concerned about losing the staffing,” Botelho said, “but we can’t continue to go as we’re going, and we never envisioned that when we started this. It was, hopefully, moving the two cities and the county together through a joint-powers authority or a special district. I think the special district is the way to go. I think we need to have some kind of formal agreement through our councils to do that.”

Friend said he agreed and reiterated that he wanted to know if Del Campo was ready to present the information to others. Muenzer interjected that Del Campo made the “mistake” of saying earlier that what he was presenting to the committee was not “agendized correctly.”

“That concerns me,” Muenzer said. “Do we need to wait on this report until next month and have it agendized correctly?”

Del Campo said it is not known if a district would be formed as part of a strategic plan, but it is known that a district is part of the presentation he was making. Velazquez commented that he agreed with Muenzer and said they could have the conversation “right now” and at the next meeting, the information could be brought back for further discussion before the boards to decide which direction to move.

“We can have the discussion, but what the supervisor (Muenzer) pointed out is we have to be careful, but we can talk about a fire district right now,” Velazquez said. “The main thing is we can talk about what’s needed to go into that plan to come back with that information, and then we can go forward and present it. Does that make sense?”

After a few “absolutely” comments from others, Velazquez said he would start and commented that he estimated the budget would be around $8 million. San Juan Bautista Councilman Robert Lund upped the ante by another $2 million. Velazquez said the new homes being built pay a portion, but the problem is existing properties. He wanted to know how many parcels are in the county in order to come up with a per-parcel fee to spread throughout the county in order to fund the “right number of stations and firefighters” and not have to have the same conversation every few years.

“That takes politics out of this whole deal,” Velazquez said. “What does that mean dollar-wise, insurance-wise? All these different pieces have to be laid out. Then the discussion has to be do we wait two years or do we have a special election (to vote for a fire district)?”

Del Campo said it still could take time because a fire district is basically an intergovernmental agency with an ad hoc service purpose that also includes support in the form of administration and human resources departments. Velazquez said the discussion they were having had already taken place three years ago about which direction to take and that a fire district had been decided on. He said they already had all the information needed and now all they had to do was determine the strategy to accomplish the task of establishing a fire district. He said they needed to continue forward before the SAFER grant ended.

Del Campo said it would take a two-thirds vote by the residents to approve a tax to pay for the fire district that would come under the jurisdiction of the California State Fire Marshal. He said it would still take a couple years to form the district.

Botelho said that after receiving all the information from Del Campo and if the council still decided a fire district was the way to go, then they needed to hire a consultant to determine the economics involved to determine the number of parcels and the tax rate.

“If we don’t have the number of parcels the cost will run through the roof,” he said. “If we’re all together I think we can hold the costs to a reasonable level where the voters will support this.”

After Velazquez, Muenzer and Botelho made comments about going through the motions of taking the time to gather the information, then present it to the council and board, Del Campo reminded them that they didn’t have that much time.

“Once Sept. 30 happens and we don’t get the federal funding, it’s going to be a dismal level of staffing and a high level of overtime,” the chief warned. “Services will still get done, but we’re putting our staff at risk by exposing them to longer hours. When you expose these folks to that there’s a high potential of workers’ comp. I’ve seen it in the military where exposure will cause a line-of-duty death or injury and the same thing happens here. This isn’t a job where you can go to work 9 to 5 and you’re in a safe environment. These guys understand that they’re going to be putting their lives at risk.”

Del Campo said he still believes the city will receive the SAFER grant, but is concerned because it is an election year, which has prolonged the process and slowed down the allocation of the grant money.

When Del Campo shifted into discussing the current levels of service, Velazquez stopped him and said he needed to show how the figures were important to the discussion about a fire district. Del Campo tried to start again, but Muenzer said he was nervous about “the route we’re going down,” and said again the conversation needed to be re-agendized and discussed next month to see if there was enough information to take back to the council and board.

Friend said that he thought it was time to stop and agendize the conversation and asked if it was time for each of the committee members to go before their respective governing boards and tell them, “This is where we want to go. I don’t mean a final decision, but a consensus of the board and council that it’s time for us to look at a special district. We need to do that before the next meeting.”

Friend told Del Campo that the presentation he was not being allowed to present to the committee should be sent out via email to the council, board and public so that by the next meeting everyone could have their say.

“We can’t really talk about it until everyone has seen it,” he said.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]