Letter: East Contra Costa Fire Director Highlights Progress Over Past 16-Months

Stephen Smith


The following letter was submitted by Stephen Smith, a director on the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District.

Despite the claims of self-appointed watchdogs/activists, elected officials at the State, County, and local levels are not responsible for resolving the ECCFPD funding crisis.  The past efforts of those officials are appreciated, but ECCFPD is now taking the lead in the search for a solution.  Every step taken by Chief Helmick since he took office 16 months ago has been a move toward that goal.

The decision was made early in 2010 by the Fire Board to run ECCFPD with an Administrative Staff of two; the Fire Chief and an Administrative Assistant.  This was an error; I regret my part in letting it go on so long.  There were not enough hours in the day to do the work.  In addition to addressing operational issues, the work of creating a unified ECCFPD from three Predecessor Districts and separating from the County was proceeding very slowly.  Many other issues could not be addressed due to lack of resources.

When Chief Helmick took office in February of 2017, ECCFPD had been so hollowed out that it could not long support a fourth station even if funded.  Forty employees had left over the preceding six years; no one was left with 6 to 10 years’ experience. Anticipated employee departures would leave ECCFPD unable to reliably support a third station.  ECCFPD was facing a shortage of Engineers qualified to drive fire apparatus.  Deferred maintenance had left apparatus and equipment dangerously inadequate.  The Chief first began by: establishing succession plans and building candidate pools for promotion; addressing other issues affecting Employee retention; increasing Staff and Line Personnel involvement in District administration; and greatly improving communications with the Public and other Governmental Agencies.  Operational Policies were altered to reflect District resource realities and enhance Firefighter safety.

Next came the expanding the Administrative Staff.  ECCFPD has added a second Administrative Assistant, a 40-hour Administrative Battalion Chief, and a Business Manager.  These additions have made a marked difference; Financial Audits are finally current, the Actuarial Study of our Post-Employment Benefits Program is complete, the Capital Improvement Replacement Reserve and Equipment Replacement Reserve studies are well along, and markedly improved information is available on the District Website including Financial data.  Bookkeeping, which had evolved over time within the County, is undergoing a top-to-bottom review to improve accuracy and comprehensibility.

ECCFPD is improving relations with other levels of Government.  Participation in the California Special Districts Association and Fire Districts Association of California provides valuable training, information, and contacts for both Board and Staff.  This helps with an active program of advocacy at the State and Federal levels, facilitated by our Legislative Consultant.  ECCFPD and its problems are far better known in Sacramento then before. If it becomes time to seek legislative aid, we will be ready.  Our Legislative Consultant has already helped ECCFPD to obtain Grants for equipment upgrades and replacement.

Recent fire tragedies have focused Public and Press attention on regular Fire Inspections.  In responding to its own needs, CONFIRE has decided that it will no longer provide these services to outside agencies, including ECCFPD.  ECCFPD is actively preparing to assume these responsibilities by November 1 and will contract with outside firms until it has set up its own Division.  Recruitment for a Fire Marshal to oversee the process is underway.  Eventually, this Division will be fully supported by Plan Review and Inspection Fees, accounted for with a separate Enterprise Fund.

Finally, there is the core issue of increasing the number of Stations and Firefighters.  We have a Master Plan from the 2016 CityGate Deployment and Staffing Study.  Work has been proceeding on the Strategic Plan for several months, facilitated by our Consultant.  Drafting of the Plan is underway, and future Public Meetings and a Board Retreat have already been scheduled.  The Plan should be ready for adoption by the Elected Board in January.

To summarize, there has been intense activity going on for 16 months.  The goal has been to produce a District which is operating as a unified entity rather than a collection of practices left over from three Predecessor Districts.  ECCFPD is finally prepared to drive the process of adding Stations and Firefighters and deserve Public and other Government confidence as it does so.

Stephen Smith