Police / Fire

The Dollars and Sense of Firefighting

Fire chief explains the inner workings and costs of fighting fires in three jurisdictions
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When Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo stood before the city council Aug 1 to ask for two more months funding — totaling $166,000 — so 11 of the 12 firefighters who were released when a federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant expired, some residents objected out of hand, others challenged the department’s standard operating procedures, and some even questioned the chief’s management capabilities and cost-projection skills.

Del Campo sat down at his office in Fire Station No. 1 with BenitoLink to explain what might be called the “dollars and sense” of firefighting simultaneously in two small towns within a wide-ranging, rural county.

He explained that the makeup of the fire department is two stations, with 41 personnel to cover 1,390 square miles with 57,000 people, according to the most recent census. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards state that there should be one firefighter for every 1,000 people, so, according to NFPA, the department should actually have 57 personnel. But he added that does not take into consideration the number of migrant farm workers who come to the area every year. He estimates that number at between 5,000 and 8,000, and said 5 percent to 10 percent of the 911 calls the fire department responds to involves them. So, even with 41 firefighters, Del Campo said he’s still short 20 firefighters.

“We have three shifts that work 24-hour days,” he said as he pointed to the shift schedule for August. “These guys are on a 4/6 schedule. A shift started on Wednesday. They’re working Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and Tuesday. Once they get done they’ll have four days off and then they go back on tour and do it again. Then they get six days off and come back again for a four-day stretch.”

Within a 24-hour time period, there can be between one and 15 calls, often without sleep for the crews for the entire shift. In the past 30 days, there were 232 calls.

“About 15 years ago, during a 24-hour shift, they might get three calls and be able to sleep all night and be able to function the next day,” Del Campo said. “With the growth in population, as opposed to 1,500 to 2,000 calls a year, we now get anywhere between 3,200 and 4,000 calls. An organization this size with only 40 people (counting the reinstated firefighters) that’s taxing. That day off between shifts is supposed to allow them to recuperate so they can come the next day and continue their work.”

The chief said that firefighters are not paid overtime for the 24-hour period, meaning anything over eight hours is straight time for the entire shift. If they are called in or have to stay the next day, they’re paid time-and-a-half.

“Lately, I have had to put a lot of people ‘on the hook’ and not let them go home,” he said. “If you’ve done your shift and you want to go home and nobody has been called back for overtime or called in sick, I keep you in place. You might not be happy about it, but you know you’re obligated to do another 24-hour period. Plus, you have tomorrow’s shift to do, so you’re way from your family for three days.”

Del Campo said paying firefighters time-and-a-half gets very expensive very quickly.

There is little differentiation between the types of calls to which crews are sent out, be it a fire, medical aid, or public service, such as a broken water pipe. The minimum time for a crew to get out the door, transit to the situation, provide service, and then return to the station and replenish the engine with whatever supplies were used at the call, and the captain writes up a report, can be about an hour.

Del Campo addressed—and agreed with—the criticism of using the big engines to respond to every 911 call. He said that because of low funding nationwide, fire departments typically purchase one fire engine and one fire truck with a ladder. The engines are normally staffed to be first out the door on a call with Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) onboard. He said that because of the strategic position of Fire Station No. 1 inside the city, it’s possible for his people to “stop the clock” on the medical situation in a couple minutes until the ambulance shows up.

“Because of a process called the ‘Standard of Coverage,’ fire engines arrive first in order to stop the clock and provide service and support until the ambulance providers come and transport the patient,” Del Campo said. “This year, my recommendation to council was to purchase two utility trucks, which is a commercial pickup with a crew cab and four-wheel drive capabilities to traverse some of the rough terrain out there.”

The pickups would also have a small pump, medical supplies and some rescue equipment. They would be designated a patrol truck or Type 6 vehicle (an engine is a Type 1).

“Each has firefighting capability and emergency services capability,” the chief said. “This is the caveat for buying one of these vehicles: a fire engine costs $15 a mile every mile it goes down the street, including all the people on it, the maintenance and the fuel. The patrol truck only costs $5 a mile. We still need the big rigs for structure fires and pump capacity. In fact, ISO (Insurance Services Office) that provides us insurance, wants to see a lot of pump capacity so the city can drop its ISO rating (and get a better insurance rate).”

Del Campo said the city is funding four new vehicles: two Type 1 engines, at $450,000 to $575,000 each, and two Type 6 trucks at $250,000 to $300,000 apiece. He quickly explained that the pricey pickups were basically smaller-scaled fire engines with some of the same capabilities. He said the engines take three to four months to “spec,” and another 12 to 16 months to build. The Type 6 trucks will be delivered in eight to nine months, he estimated. He said an additional water tanker is also being constructed and is being funded through FEMA.

One criticism, justified or not, laid on the fire department is the number of medical calls versus fire calls the engines roll out on. Del Campo confirmed that 80 percent or more of the calls are medical.

“There’s nothing we can do about it because there are certain procedures we have to abide by according to California’s Title 22 (part of the California Code of Regulations (CCR) consisting of 28 titles containing regulations of approximately 200 agencies) that you arrive on scene after you’re dispatched by the 911 system that has been activated for the address and person you are going to.”

He said the responding engine’s EMTs will assess the situation and recommend the needed care and to which hospital the person will be transported. He said the person can tell them what he or she wants to do.

“A lot of times they understand that the ambulance ride to the hospital can be very expensive, because the fire department does not transport,” the chief said. “But if they’re incapacitated or knocked out and it’s obvious they need to be transported, they will be transported.”

Del Campo said he hasn’t seen much abuse of the 911 system, except for a couple of people who call it for their personal use. He said some will call 911 and an engine or ambulance will respond under the pretext that that the person is injured and needs help.

“We get there and sometimes they’re sitting in bed or in a wheelchair and they say they’ve assisted themselves, and they’ll say, ‘since you’re here will you put my clothes from the washing machine in the dryer?’ or ‘can you put water in my dog’s bowl?’” he said. “There are only a couple of addresses that have abused the system and they do it repeatedly. One address had 43 calls in a single month.”

The information on an abuser is passed up the chain and eventually they will be notified that they can be fined. Del Campo said he has gone out to discuss the abuse with the individual and tried to explain that they should be using Adult Protective Services and other county programs.

“I tell them I know it’s convenient to call 911 because they know they’re going to get us out there every time, but if it happens consistently there will be ramifications,” he said. “Sometimes they understand; sometimes they don’t and continue to use the system.”

He said the department can’t and won’t ignore their calls, but all calls have to be prioritized and if a call comes from that address, the dispatcher, who is also an EMT, will try to determine the situation at the scene in order to send the appropriate response.

Every action the fire department takes is determined by one governing agency or another, involving everything from how many hours and the type of training are required each month.

“You have to stay sharp on these skills because they’re perishable,” Del Campo said. “I’ve been out of engines for about six years, so I would have to get a significant amount of training to get back to the skill level the most basic firefighter has. I mention this because the prevailing attitude of volunteer or reserve fire departments is not a realistic or logical solution.”

Del Campo said the community doesn’t expect sheriffs deputies or police officers to be volunteers because they’re supposed to know the law intimately.

“You can’t have a dot-commer or a baker come in from their 40-hour workweek and pull a midnight shift as a law enforcement officer and pull you over for a violation that they think you did when they’re not abreast of the vehicle code,” he said. “As a firefighter, we’re as equal, if not more, on the perishable skills part because most of the calls we make are medically related, so if we don’t know where we’re to put our hands on that patient’s chest to do CPR, we can rupture their spleen or break ribs that can puncture their lungs.

“If you have someone doing this on a part-time basis because it’s a hobby, that’s a liability. I appreciate the reserve program and we develop them to the best of their ability, but if they’re not here on a frequent basis sharpening up those skills, they’re not doing us any good and I’ll request that they resign or they’ll have to devote more time on the books and have all their certificates.”

When it comes down to funding, Del Campo said the department's approximately $6.4 million budget is split between the cities of Hollister ($5.2 million), San Juan Bautista ($163,770), and the county ($1.1 million), with an additional $185,000 from the planned Panoche Solar Project. He answered critics of the city relying on federal grants to help fund fire services by pointing out on his personnel board that without that funding, he would lose an entire shift of 12 people, leaving 28 people to handle three shifts to protect a growing population.

The only reason the city cannot afford to pay the total tab for fire protection and has to rely on grants, the chief said, is because not all households pay an equal share for public safety through Mello-Roos Community Facilities Districts (CFDs).

“Across the street (by Premiere Cinema) people pay into Mello-Roos that provides the funding source for police and fire, but if you go on the other side of San Benito Street, those houses were built before those bills were put in place, and they don’t pay as much,” he said. “If we were to have a parcel tax or users’ fee on every door of anywhere between $30 to $40 a month, we would have the money to not only keep the 12 firefighters, but to open up another station, buy brand new rigs, and hire nine more personnel for a Station 5 configuration that is going to have to be met in South County.”

Del Campo said that when he goes to city planning meetings, he sees how many new housing projects are being held up because of the lack of infrastructure.

“Santana Ranch is going to put up 1,100 homes and the CDF fee is based on 1989’s economy, and it’s not very much per door,” he said. “So, there’s going to be 1,100 homes out there, with two to three people a household, so you’re looking at close to 4,000 people, and you still have the same infrastructure (as 1989) in this community.”

Del Campo said the fees need to be increased because they’re outdated, but he doesn’t think it is realistic to believe residents would want to bring them up to 2016 standards.

“It would be a huge jump and we’re going to experience some sticker shock and a lot of aggravation,” he said. “We should have been thinking about this as the years were passing and as developments were coming in.”

Meanwhile, Del Campo said, the department does what it can with what it has, with some help from neighboring fire departments. He said reciprocal relationships are the only way to consistently ensure coverage throughout the county. He said that when he came onboard as the chief a year ago, he contacted each fire chief of the surrounding cities, as well as CalFire stations, to establish informal agreements to provide mutual support when needed.

“Gilroy has used us twice and CalFire has used us at least four times a week,” he said. “Watsonville has used Hollister once in five years. Watsonville lets us use their training facility and if one of our engines breaks down again I’m requesting they provide us with an engine. These are agreements all fire agencies have. There’s nothing written because at any time I could have the worst day of my life here and I can’t provide them support.”

He said this is what happened recently when he was asked to support the fire near Big Sur. He did not have the personnel (the 12 firefighters who were released) and an engine was down because of a malfunctioning pump. In order to head off shortages or buy new equipment to bolster the department, the Fire Advisory Committee determined that Hollister cannot continue to foot the majority of the bill and that all three jurisdictions (Hollister, San Juan and the county) need to chip in to pay for vehicles, services and staffing.

The ideal solution, Del Campo said, would be to form a fire district, as opposed to Hollister managing and administering the fire protection capabilities, for the entire area, that would headed by a fire commissioner, and a fire committee to come up with fire departments and their missions, which would have to be voted on by residents. He said the advantage of a fire district is that funding would be more evenly divided between the three jurisdictions, with the county and Hollister taking on the lion’s share, and San Juan Bautista a smaller amount.

He said that since the SAFER grant ran out April 4, the city has been paying the bill to the tune of over $800,000 for staffing for 90 days that was not part of the federal grant or the contracts with the county or San Juan Bautista. The most recent payment approved Aug. 1 by the city council was for an additional 60 days.

“We feel that San Juan Bautista and San Benito County have to participate because this is not sustainable for us,” he said. “If we exhaust this money we’re looking at close to $920,000.”

A couple issues that exacerbate the problem of operating with too few firefighters is the fact that if they respond to a call beyond Bolado Park the engine will be out of service to the city for several hours. And then there’s an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health) law that firefighters cannot go into a burning structure unless an equal number of firefighters are on scene to back them up. This would come to play, in particular, in San Juan Bautista, which has one engine and two firefighters. If this crew were to go to a house fire and they suspected someone was inside, they could either decide to do nothing, in accordance to OSHA, or break the law by entering without backup.

Del Campo said that has not happened yet, but being that firefighters are “alpha types,” they would most likely choose to break the law in order to do their duty.

“I can’t have that,” Del Campo said. “They would break the law on a regular basis. I’ve got to be there to police them and hold them back and tell them they have to wait for that second engine to come. There is something, though, called ‘eminent rescue,’ where you’ve been told or you can see someone, then they’re going in there, even without a hose line, if they have to. That’s a caveat to the NFPA rule.”

When asked if any of his firefighters had broken the law by going in without backup, Del Campo said with a grin, “That’s kind of open to interpretation. Not broken, maybe bent.”

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]