Fire Chief: East Contra Costa Fire’s Critical Infrastructure Update and Next Steps

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The following letter was submitted by East Contra Costa Fire Chief Brian Helmick

Brentwood – Over the past year, the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) has worked on assuring that we are sustainable, operationally sound, and living within our means. Today, approximately one year into the District’s reorganization, we are beginning to see the fruits of our labor.

We have been able to stabilize the District’s staff retention challenges and have started to define better administrative and operational processes. Although the District is not able to provide service levels that adequately protect the community’s residents at this time, we are well on our way to building a solid foundation from which service levels can be efficiently increased when the residents move to provide additional revenue.

While the District continues to stabilize and reinforce our foundation, we also will begin to prepare for growth. The District will start by investing in infrastructure (apparatus, equipment, and stations) in accordance with the District’s equipment and capital improvement plan. Historically (since 2002) the District has not adequately invested in its infrastructure, directing all available funds to attempt to retain a fourth fire station. Unfortunately, a fourth station is not sustainable with our current revenues, and deferred investment in the District’s infrastructure has created many challenges. District assets’ state-of-repair needs to be addressed to assure that ECCFPD is providing services as efficiently as possible now, and also preparing for future growth.

Indulge me for a moment as I explain why investing in infrastructure is vital for ECCFPD to be sustainable and to prepare for future growth. Let’s start with our stations and how they relate to our service model.

The District currently has three open stations and is running at capacity with three personnel per station, per shift, for a total of nine firefighters on duty at any given time. With this three-station model, it is impossible to provide a high level of service in terms of response times throughout the District. Our system is very dynamic, and its’ limited number of engines are frequently out of the stations on calls. Occasionally, none are available for a new call and service must come from outside the District, so one cannot assume that being close to a fire station assures a rapid response. That means that the best response times are available to those nearest to a District engine at the time of their call because any or all three of our engines may be out of their stations on calls in Marsh Creek / Morgan Territory, Bethel Island, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, Oakley, Byron and/or Brentwood.

Now, imagine if the District were to receive additional revenue that would enable it to open six more stations, allowing it to achieve the recommendations in ECCFPD’s 2016 “Deployment Performance and Headquarters Staffing Adequacy Study” (https://eccfpd.specialdistrict.org/about-the-district ). If the District had the budget, as the Fire Chief, I could quickly hire more firefighters. But the unfortunate reality is that the District does not have adequate stations, beyond the three that are currently staffed, to house additional firefighters 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition to our three active stations, the District also has five shuttered stations, but none of them can be reopened without massive renovations – or, more likely, complete replacement. The shuttered stations were mostly constructed in the 1950’s and were never intended to operate full-time (24-hours a day, seven days a week). Instead, they were built for volunteer firefighters to gather and respond to emergencies, and to store equipment. For the past 15 years, the District has done everything it could to update the antiquated facilities in an attempt to turn them into livable stations that are suitable for full-time fire department operations. Unfortunately, we have taken them as far as we can, and each of the shuttered stations is at the end of its useful life. Today, these stations are used for storage or sit vacant; unless the buildings are rebuilt, they will never reopen as fire stations. The shuttered stations are in the process of being evaluated to allow the District to determine if the assets will become surplus and sold, or if the stations will be rebuilt. This assessment will be finalized as part of the District’s upcoming Strategic Planning process.

Based on the “Deployment Performance and Headquarters Staffing Adequacy Study”, the District should have four fire stations in Brentwood, three in Oakley, and two in Discovery Bay / Byron, and for the District to continue its contract with Cal Fire to operate the Marsh Creek Station (Sunshine Station). The station locations were identified based on population, growth, and access to main roads to ensure response times are the best possible. The priority and process for opening future stations will be finalized during the District’s upcoming Strategic Planning process.  Meanwhile, the District is already working with the cities of Brentwood and Oakley to build new stations now to prepare for future growth.

Second, let’s look at fire-fighting equipment.  In addition to having an inadequate number of stations and crews, the District’s equipment is outdated, breaking down, and no longer meets National Fire Service recommended operational standards. Like the stations, during the economic downturn maintenance and replacement of fire engines and equipment was deferred.  At this point, the District’s deferred maintenance and replacement practices have caught up with us and are impacting our service.

The District’s three front-line (“first-out”) engines are more than 10 years old and have racked up more than 100,000 miles of service. The fire service industry standards are to transition first-out fire engines to reserve status at either 10 years or 100,000 miles. In addition, most of the equipment on our engines is from 2001 and needs replacing. For example, the District is currently preparing and submitting grants to replace and update the District’s 17-year-old vehicle extrication equipment (“jaws of life”).  If received, the grants will allow the District to replace this essential equipment on all three first-out engines, updating the mechanics from the old-fashioned hydraulic hoses hooked up to heavy equipment to modern battery-operated equipment, which is much lighter and faster to operate during rescue situations. The District also is on the look-out for grant opportunities to fund many other types of equipment replacement.

ECCFPD’s current service capacity is not acceptable in the near-term, and is no recipe for long-term success. This is why ECCFPD is in the beginning phases of creating a Strategic Plan that will define the path and cost to meet the response and staffing levels defined by the 2016 Deployment and Staffing Study. As the Fire Chief, I firmly believe that our Fire District is a critical part of our community that cannot be neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair.

To conclude, while the District continues to stabilize and reinforce our foundation, we are beginning to prepare for growth. Once the District’s Strategic plan is finalized, ECCFPD will explore funding options to meet the recommendations as defined by the Strategic Plan and the 2016 Deployment and Staffing Study. The future level of fire protection service will be decided by the voice of the District’s citizens.  As ECCFPD moves forward, I will continue to work within our budget to provide the best service levels possible with the funding we have.

Sincerely,

Brian Helmick
Fire Chief, East Contra Costa Fire Protection District

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14 COMMENTS

  1. A well written and direct assessment of our fire and EMS service from Chief Helmick. I appreciate his direct and “no BS” apolitical position that speaks directly to the issues and current state of our local safety.

    Granted no one wants to pay more for bonds or tax measures, but having two elderly parents in my home, I have needed the “big red truck” in my driveway multiple times over the last several years. We have been fortunate that response time was under 10 minutes, but if you ever drive past the operating fire stations, you will notice that the engines are rarely in their garages. Our fire service is operating beyond it’s capacity and this needs to be addressed.

    I endorse and support the plans and proposals set forth by Chief Helmick for the safety of our community…even if it costs me a few extra bucks per year. We simply have no choice in our growing community and our collective safety.

  2. A well written and direct assessment of our fire and EMS service from Chief Helmick. I appreciate his direct and “no BS” apolitical position that speaks directly to the issues and current state of our local safety.

    Granted no one wants to pay more for bonds or tax measures, but having two elderly parents in my home, I have needed the “big red truck” in my driveway multiple times over the last several years. We have been fortunate that response time was under 10 minutes, but if you ever drive past the operating fire stations, you will notice that the engines are rarely in their garages. Our fire service is operating beyond it’s capacity and this needs to be addressed.

    I endorse and support the plans and proposals set forth by Chief Helmick for the safety of our community…even if it costs me a few extra bucks per year. We simply have no choice in our growing community and our collective safety.

  3. This reminds me of the time when one of the engines broke down during a call and the two firefighters had to run to the scene. You need updated new equipment to provide the best service.

  4. Again, with the increased development and increased property taxes. Where is this money going?

    • Good Evening,

      This is a fair question. I hope my response below is helpful ( apologize for the length but it’s viable information). If the response below does not address your question please let me know, as I want to provide clarity on this topic. In addition , if you would like to meet with me to discuss further I would be happy to. Lastly, I invite you to a District Finance meeting as there is a lot of helpful and educational information shared at these meetings. Meeting dates and my contact information can be found on the Districts website: http://www.eccfpd.org

      Why is funding for the Fire District so inadequate? What is increased development and increased property taxes not funding the fire District l adequately? Where is this money going?

      Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, setting an absolute property tax limit of 1% of assessed valuation (AV) for all local governments combined, and allowing for an annual maximum AV increase of 2% unless and until the property changed hands. When Proposition 13 passed, all Contra Costa County local governments combined had a tax rate of 2.797% of assessed valuation; the next year, the figure was 1.246%. This resulted in an average revenue reduction of ~55% within Contra Costa County. Proposition 13 also tasked the State Legislature with determining how to allocate this amount among the various local governments. A temporary fix was passed in 1978 as Senate Bill 154, followed by the permanent fix in 1979 as Assembly Bill 8 (AB 8). The basis for the formula was the existing proportion of total revenue collected by each local government prior to Proposition 13 passage.

      In 1978 what is now ECCFPD was predominantly rural and agricultural, served by several districts of volunteer or Paid-on-Call Firefighters. For this reason, fire suppression costs were quite low compared to other government functions, so the local Fire organizations received a relatively small percentage of the property tax. The percentages were then set by State law, and are applied by State and County financial staff. No local officials have any choice regarding these percentages.

      The current ECCFPD was formed by the County Board of Supervisors in November of 2002 and inherited the various property tax percentages on an area-by-area basis. Since 1978, considerable population growth has occurred and the very nature of the District has changed. The formula has not. The District is now far more urban in its core areas, but still has responsibility for rural and wildland areas covering considerable territory. The increased costs with servicing the expanding urban area have not been matched by the increased revenue. That is the underlying basis for the District’s financial difficulties.

      • Thank you Chief. So I’m to understand that the pre 08 money that funded our 6plus stations has never returned even though we are paying pre 08 plus property taxes.

  5. “Where’s the tax dollars going”. They hired two new administrators. Increased their Battalion Chiefs from 3 to 4 and a Finacial officer they’ve never had. Not hiring Firefighters just more administration before the Directors get elected.

    • Good Eveining Mr. Run,

      The statement above that the Fire District has hired two additional administrative assistants and one additional Battalion chief is correct.

      These hires were well overdue and they meet the recommendation of the District’s 2016 Depolyment Performance and Headquarters Staffing Adequacy Study.

      The hiring of these employees are assisting in correcting many administrative and operational processes. Furthermore, haveing the additional administrative support helps us better serve our Engine Companies that in turn helps them better serve of citizens.

      I hope this response provides some clarity on the behaviors of the District. The hiring decisions were discussed at many of the Districts Finance and Board meetings and all members of the organization (line personnel and admin) support the hiring of these needed positions.

      If you would like to get an inside look at the organization I am available to you and would welcome to meet with you.

      Please see the following link and or the Districts website for meeting and or my contact information.

      https://www.eccfpd.org/files/8cb6ea70e/Vol+1+-+ECCFPD+Deployment+and+Staffing+Study+-+Executive+Summary+%2806-15-….pdf

      Sincerely,

      Brian Helmick- ECCFPD Fire Chief

    • American,

      There is a lot to this topic but I will do my best to address your statement. Please let me know if there are any questions on the information below. Again sorry for the leangth but I want to show how the challenges the District is managing originated, what the District is doing to address them.

      What about Pension Unfunded Liability (Sometimes called “Past Costs or, UAAL”)?

      Governmental agencies throughout California now have to pay large amounts from their budgets to make up for previous underfunding, benefit increases and changing actuarial assumptions. The District is no exception. It must by law make good on previous obligations that were made before the local District became an independent agency with a Board of Directors. This is quite expensive.

      The District pays 100% of these payments for past costs, is current with its obligations, and budgets to remain current with its obligations.

      Pension

      If the Employee Joined the retirement system before January 1, 2013 (Classic Employee):

      Pension is 3% of the single highest-paid year for every year of service (up to 33 ½ years, 100% of pay).

      Unused Vacation, Holiday Pay, and the Uniform Allowance may be added to Base Pay for purposes of calculation.

      The full pension may be taken beginning at age 50.

      If the Employee joined the retirement system for the first time on or after January 1, 2013 (PEPPRA Employee):

      Pension is 2.7% of the average of the three highest-paid years for every year of service (up to 30 years).

      Base Pay only may be used for purposes of calculation.

      The full pension may be taken beginning at age 57.

      Pension Funding

      The Employer and Employee contribution rate is determined as a percentage of Employee’s Base Salary.

      Amount is paid to CCCERA, 80-90% by the District and 20-10% by the Employee.

      The employee’s ratio depends upon the Employee’s age at entry into the plan.

      The District no longer pays any part of the Employee’s contribution.

      Funding for Pension Unfunded Liability (Sometimes called “Past Costs or, UAAL”)

      Set by actuarial study and projected rates of return on investments of pension funds by CCCERA.

      Three main factors:

      a) the number and age distribution of current employees paying into the system.

      b) the number, age distribution, and projected mortality rates of retirees.

      c) the expected average rate of return on investment over time.

      Projections change over time, so total pension liability (and therefore unfunded liability) is a moving target.

      Current past cost for ECCFPD is ~$20 Million.

      CCCERA sets contribution rates so that if all factors were to remain constant pensions would be fully funded at the end of 18 years.

      (NOTE—Pension accounting and administration is an extremely complex subject. The discussion below is very simplified, but strives to be factually correct as far as it goes. All details are a matter of Public Record, and are available thru CCCERA. Their website is http://www.cccera.org/.)

      How does the District provide pension benefits?

      ECCFPD is a member of the Contra Costa County Employees Retirement Association (CCCERA) which collects for and administers Pension benefits to District employees.

      How much is the Pension?

      Pension specifics are at http://www.cccera.org/. A simplified version for ECCFPD Safety employees is in the District Benefits Fact Sheet

      How is the Pension funded?

      CCCERA sets a contribution rate as a percentage of each Employee’s base salary. For details see the ECCFPD Benefits Fact Sheet. Each Firefighter pays from $1100 to $2000 per month toward the pension.

      Why did pensions costs grow so unsustainably large?

      Prior to July 1, 2005, ECCFPD had a “2% at 50” pension plan. This was increased to “3% at 50” (and the increase was made completely retroactive) in a 2003 vote by the County Board of Supervisors, (which was then also the ECCFPD Board of Directors). What is now the local Board of Directors did not exist. In 2003, the current strict requirements requiring governmental agencies to account for Retirement Plan performance and Past Costs (AKA future liabilities) did not exist, and thus the true effects of this change were not widely understood at the time.

      What about “pension spiking”?

      The type and amount of pension “add-ons” has historically been set by each individual agency and communicated to CCCERA to be administered. The District has never engaged in nor condoned excessive “add-ons”.

      Is the District helping pay for the inflated pension obligations of other agencies?

      No. When CCCERA became aware of the growing disparities between various agencies, the former single pool of all agencies was ended in 2009. This “de-pooling” was carried out by recalculating all pools all the way back to 2002. The District now shares a pool with CONFIRE only, which is intended to stabilize our per-Employee cost.

      I hope this clarification helps. Please let me know if there are any questions.

      Sincerely,

      Brian Helmick- ECCFPD Fire Chief

      • Thank you Chief Helmick, your explanation shows your transparency and knowledge on the issue. I respect that very much. An alternative way of providing pensions that are not open ended and a different yearly credit credit calculation that provides for the volitile economic conditions. The unfunded pension issue all over the state will need to be addressed one way or the other. Again, thanks for the open straight explanation.

  6. If employees pay $1,100 – $2,000 per month towards their own pension, it’s not like they’re aren’t contributing their own pay. People need to quit whining about it. Or get a job with a nice pension.

  7. Melanie, in the industry there are no jobs any more which pay pensions. Only the government pays pensions. Thank you Brian for this great information. We love our firefighters and we desperately need them. They also deserve adequate pay. But firefighters should be happy to have the best pensions anywhere. You work your last year lots of overtime and can retire with >100% pay. The problem is the County Board of Supervisors who decided to increase 2% @ 50 to 3% @ 50, and that even retroactively! That crushed our district and put our lives and safety in jeopardy.

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