On Thursday, Contra Costa Fire Chief Jeff Carman spoke to the Antioch Rotary Club about the fire district and a variety of issues facing the District and answered questions.
Chief Carman provided an overview of the fire district which had more than 65,000 calls for service over the past year with Battalion 8 being one of the busiest in the county–Antioch, Bay Point and Pittsburg.
Carman reported that Antioch was its busiest city in the Battalion with more than 8,000 calls being considered “significant”. He also explained how the Battalion had a house fire of some kind every 1.5 days. Meanwhile, a lot of the calls have longer periods of times where firefighters are committed because of shootings, stabbings, and other major medical incidents.
For the county, they had a total of 565 fires in the past year along with 7,000 EMS calls. 70,000 ambulance calls.
He shared that fire resources in the county are needed because of how busy they are with firefighters jumping from call-to-call on some days while highlighting Station 6 in Concord as being the 14th busiest station in the United States running 20 calls per day.
With regards to future planning, Carman says they are already anticipating another recession in the next couple of years and are planning accordingly to ensure they have a healthy reserve as they plan ahead.
“We are prepared for that and we are much better managed than before,” said Carman. “Some of the things I worry about today are that we are very under resources. As we enter wild-land season, we had an abundance of rain… it’s going to be a bad fire season. It’s going to be a bad fire season because if you look at the hills they are already brown.”
He says at this point in the year, grass has burned at a rate he hasn’t seen in about 7-years.
“Last year, we lost 14 homes because of grass fire, this year I think its going to be worse,” stated Carman. “We probably won’t see those kind of fires until later in this year. September, October and November will be a very bad fire season. “
He then shared how development within the County is not helping the fire district because they are already stretched thin and more houses put more strain on services.
“We don’t have enough resources and we barely get by. It’s not just us, East County fire is in dire straights, they have enough money to operate 3-fire stations for 110,000 people. They are not going to last with that kind of funding. We try and help them as much as we can,” said Carman. “Battalion 8, which is Bay Point to Antioch is the busiest Battalion that can help East County because there is no one else around.”
Carman warned that in regards to East Contra Costa Fire, there will be times this year where they have to decline helping the District because their own resources will be tied up on their own service calls.
He further highlighted that by adding more development on an already burdened fire district is not going to help the situation and needed more sustained revenue through fees or revenue enhancements.
“In southeast Antioch, they are trying to development. We are finding as you get into the more rural areas of the county, much like East Contra Costa Fire, our allocation in southeast Antioch is 9% of the 1% you pay in property taxes, the county average is 14%,” explained Carman. “We are barely getting by on 14%, We can only protest that we need more revenue from that development to sustain a fire station,” explained Carman. “We are looking at new funding mechanisms on new development as its been loud and clear from everybody that nobody wants to pay new taxes.”
He did say that right now the District is sustainable financially and they were doing well and in good shape by spending $15 million on new apparatus.
Carman was asked about a potential countywide fire department and taking on some of the small districts such as East Contra Costa Fire, Pinole, and Richmond.
“The problem with that is we are just getting back on our feet as Contra Costa Fire and each of those agencies are liabilities financially,” explained Carman. “East Contra Costa Fire has $11 million in their budget; they run 3-stations and are paid much lower than we are. If we were to come in and take on the $11 million budget, we would probably not be able to even offer a 3-station fire model with their budget. What I have told people is that we would be willing to contract because severing a contract is easier than a consolidation.”
He noted he would love to come over and help the East Contra Costa Fire, since he lives within the District (Brentwood), but it would be a tax liability for CONFIRE that it would do more harm than good.
“To fight a structure fire, we need 15-firefighters and they only have 9-firefighters on duty per day,” said Carman. “What they have been trying to do is rely on us being CONFIRE, to get to their 15-firefighters to fight a structure fire and still make interior attacks and rescues. That is going to stop because I can’t keep sending 2-engines over there all the time. We are so busy in our own battalion.”
He warned East Contra Costa that they will soon be going to a new model of fire attack because they would be limiting resources they sent outside their own District.
“They will squirt water from the outside, if there are victims inside, very sad but they are not going to get rescuers on the inside,” said Carman. “Even more sad is as we enter wild-land season, they have a lot of vegetation. My concern for East County, someone in their organization is going to get hurt and hurt bad because of how busy they are and how busy they run. I live off Balfour, that station is in and out all day long, they can’t sustain that.”
Carman says his answer for them is to quit going to certain medical calls and focus on the major types of calls (Editor’s note: this is within the context of budget limitations and its impact on the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District service model).
“I hate to use the word subsidize but we are the county and we have been giving not just been giving to Pinole and Rodeo, and some of the others we have been giving fire engines on loan when they need them on calls,” explained Carman. “I will tell you that we monitor this and we try and give what we get back. On a monthly basis we look at this that and if we give 30-engines we hope to get 30-engines back on our drop boarder agreement which sends the closest engine available.”
Carman says with East Contra Costa Fire, its lopsided because they have 3-engines and explained how when the District went down to 3-stations, the ratio became 4-to-1 where CONFIRE was sending more engines that it was getting back.
“I am not going to lie, there are times when people in Antioch call 9-1-1 and your closest engine is in East County out of District helping them” said Carman. “Ethically and morally, I feel like we need to send them, but I also need to be wary of people who pay their taxes. This means Antioch residents are getting Bay Point and Pittsburg fire engines when our Antioch engines are out of District.”
He noted that when that begins to happen, units from Central County then have to travel Highway 4 from Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek, Concord, to Martinez to respond to East County which creates long delays and a major strain countywide.
Carman was asked about what happens when insurance rates go up in East County increase.
“I think that is when a lot of people in East County will begin to pay attention, they will go up, they are going to be denied in some insurances,” said Carman. “That is what gets people’s attention, when their insurance companies won’t insure them or anyone else will except for the very high and expensive places. It’s coming, it’s just catching up.”
Carman said within terms of CONFIRE, they are going to have to start pulling back resources in the next month due to wildland season and the boating season has already had two drowning and a handful of water boat responses have added to their capacity.
Carman was asked about sending engines to medical calls and if they could just send ambulances and not fire trucks to every call.
“To some of the lower level calls, we are already doing that. Now that we have control of those resources, we know where they are and staffing, we are already sending ambulances only to the lowest level calls,” explained Carman. “We are looking at expanding the program to more calls that do not require 2-paramedics and 5-people.”
Carman closed the discussion by stating if the county re-do its entire fire program from the start, he believed they would create a single fire department countywide because right now, they have multiple agencies responding to calls in different areas which has guys trying to work together versus being from the same agency have knowing roles upon arriving to the scene.
“It’s not as efficient or safe where one agency as one policy and another agency has another,” said Carman. “I look at it more so as it’s unsafe and fractured…. I think the ticket now is if this county was to re-do it again, a county fire department for everybody. That way we take El Cerrito who gets 30% of your 1% Taxes, Moraga gets 20-semething, East County gets 7% and in some cases 4%. Whereas if you take it all countywide it would make it more level care in response for everybody.”
The Antioch Rotary Club meets every Thursday which includes guest speakers.
For more on Contra Costa County Fire, visit them online: www.cccfpd.org