The following letter was submitted by Susanna Thompson, a director on the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District.
Like many other people who live in eastern Contra Costa County, I had been vaguely aware for quite a few years that the fire district was “struggling”. You see articles in the newspaper, you notice a fire station has closed, but it doesn’t really seem like a big deal. It’s the fire department right? They always show up, it’s just a thing. Fire engines are part of our landscape, like streetlights, Safeway, and Starbucks, they just ARE. My sense of complacency changed in the early hours of July 8, 2017.
I was awakened by a neighbor honking at the front gate at 2:30 AM. There was a fire on the ranch next to us and it was coming toward our property. I could see the flames when I walked outside. The neighbor said he’d called the fire department and I thanked him and went to wake up my husband. When I came back outside minutes later the fire was much closer and I decided to call the fire department myself. The dispatcher said they’d had a report of a telephone pole on fire near my location, I said well no doubt because my land line is dead, I’m calling you from my cell, how soon is the fire department going to get here? He said that there were multiple fires in the area and at that time there were no more resources available. I asked him if he was kidding and he said no. I let that sink in for a couple of seconds, then I said “So is this the nightmare scenario I’ve been reading about in the paper?” He said “Pretty much.” I thanked him for his honesty, ended the call, looked at the approaching line of flames, turned to my husband and said “There’s no one coming, we’re on our own.” What followed was an intense period of preparing to defend our property ourselves, and if we couldn’t do that, to evacuate.
The good news is that due to some decisive action by CalFire, mutual aid from Con Fire (Contra Costa County Fire Protection District), and that we had done our homework and had good defensible space, our home was saved and we did not spend the last year living in a fifth wheel trailer in the driveway while we rebuilt our house. A night like that is not easily forgotten, though, and it led me to look more seriously into what was going on with the fire district.
I’ve always been of the mindset that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, so when I found out there were going to be openings on the Board of Directors, I applied and a couple of months later, I was appointed to the Board of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District.
I learned very quickly that the District’s struggles were not lack of effort, drive, or desire, but lack of money. This decades long shortfall originates back to 1978 and the passage of Proposition 13, which among other things set the funding allocation for various local government agencies. In 1978 and for many years after, the area served by the district was rural and/or agricultural in nature, and served by either volunteer or paid on call fire fighters. I grew up here and I remember those days well and as a little girl seeing license plates frames and stickers on friends’ fathers’ pickups identifying them as volunteer firefighters and wondering why their pickups weren’t red like fire trucks. Our district has experienced exponential growth over the last couple of decades, and as nostalgic as it might be for many of us, the volunteer model for a fire department no longer works. If you’d like to better understand why that isn’t an option for the District, Chief Helmick has explained it very well here
Moving forward to build the District into what it needs to be now, and what it will need to be in the future, we have implemented a strategic planning process to define that path, and we have encouraged the community to participate in every step along the way. From town hall meetings to online surveys, we have taken input from the community and carefully considered all the suggestions that have been made. In an ongoing effort provide transparency to the public, many of of these suggestions are addressed in the District’s white papers which are available on our website here.
I’m proud of what the District has accomplished in the last year under Chief Helmick’s leadership. I have total confidence that Chief Helmick, Board President Brian Oftedal, and my fellow Directors will continue to guide the District well in the future. We are approaching completion of the strategic planning process with a final community workshop on November 14 at the Brentwood Community Center from 6-8 PM.
We welcome and encourage the public to come and share their thoughts with us and I hope to meet many of you there.
Director, East Contra Costa Fire Protection District