The proposed parcel tax headed to the June 5th ballot has stirred up a lot of very good, and sometimes very confused dialog. From my perspective, there are three components of the issue, and each deserves a thoughtful exploration as stand-alone topics, later to come back together to hopefully inform those who will be both involved in and affected by the measure, whether it passes or fails.
In this episode, I will focus on the Cambria Fire Department, with a side order of Cal Fire.
So Many Questions
I went into this portion of the exercise with a list of questions based on feedback I had heard from across the community.
Some of these questions included:
- Why do we need to spend so much money on a professional department?
- Is this proposed tax designed to protect the community or protect the firefighter’s jobs?
- We have a Cal Fire station in town that responds to callouts – doesn’t that provide another level of protection and fill the manpower needs?
- How about the Ambulance Corps?
- Why do we need so many Paramedics and EMT’s?
- How about a volunteer force?
- Will we need to spend more money on building out the firehouse?
Great questions – and they need to be answered as accurately and thoroughly as possible.
I picked up my lamp and set out to get some answers. My wandering took me to the CSD website, the administrative offices, and most enlighteningly to the firehouse. I was able to get some significant face time with Chief William Hollingsworth, a bit less time with an on-duty crew, and a quick exchange with the Firefighter’s Union Rep, who I will follow up with when he is off-duty and can speak in his capacity as a union leader.
The Cambria Fire Department
From the CambriaCSD.org website:
The Cambria CSD Fire Station is located at 2850 Burton Drive, providing excellent emergency access. The Department provides a range of round-the-clock fire protection, prevention, rescue and emergency medical services to the community of Cambria. It also offers training and public education programs, building safety inspections and a fuel hazard reduction program.
The first thing I noticed as I hit the page is the header – Fire and Safety. Indeed, the department does much more than fight fires. In fact, fighting fires take up a surprisingly small amount of time on the duty roster. So, given that, why the big fuss over how many people are on a fire truck? What else do they do with their time? And under all those “other” tasks, why is it the CFD’s responsibility?
Chief Hollingsworth has been very clear on the official Department position. Firefighters may not discuss or represent the union position while they are on duty. Off-duty, on their own time – they have the same rights and responsibilities that come with the First Amendment. The rule is sensible, and the crew I spoke with followed it. When my questions led them to an uncomfortable place, one of the men handed me the business card of the union rep and suggested I set up a time to have him answer my questions. They provided me with specific codes, guidelines, and a list of governing rules and regulations (which I have mostly forgotten.)
The crew was polite; neither aggressive or defensive, and appropriately forthcoming.
Chief Hollingsworth started with an overview of the Cambria Fire Department – it’s beginning, the evolution from a volunteer force to the current professional emergency services department that serves the community today. He also shared some of his journey from rookie firefighter to Chief of the department. Throughout the conversation, I was struck by his real passion for the community and his firm belief that service goes beyond the individual.
The conversation was cordial and informal – no notes, recordings or “gotcha” questions. I explained my mission, and he responded with candor and a willingness to answer as fully and openly as he could. The conversation wound up going far longer than either of us expected. Although I had sent him a list of questions and topics when I requested a meeting, it felt more important and more productive to have a conversation rather than a Q and A.
We sat down in his office, surrounded by the books, binders, photos, and mementos that make the room more than an office. The sounds of an active Emergency Services station filling the space with an assortment of beeps, static, voices from afar, and all the codes that blip across the airwaves. The Chief stayed focused on the conversation, but much like a parent who always has one ear on the baby monitor his head would tilt a bit, and his hand would casually reach out to adjust the volume on the radio that never left his side. This soundtrack added some atmosphere and relevance to the conversation, as first responders from various agencies were dispatched, reported status and kept the dialog going in their language.
The station itself was fairly quiet, with crews going about their duties and responding to some of those calls that crackled through the radio. I was reminded about a question that was raised about the potential need to expand the station. It was brought up based on a discussion from over a year ago, in the context of potentially housing the Cambria Healthcare District’s Ambulance crews as their facility, damaged in a mudslide, was being rehabilitated. At the time the Chief stated the firehouse was not originally designed to house 24 hour emergency services crews and would need to expand if that path was taken. In the ensuing time, the firehouse was reconfigured to take better advantage of existing space, and the current crews are sheltered, snugly but fully. (A quick conversation with the CCSD General Manager provided the same answer.)
It’s not about me, or any one person. It’s about the community.
Chief William Hollingsworth
One often-cited argument for a fourth firefighter on a shift centers around response to a structure fire. There is an OSHA/Firefighting standard that requires there be at least two firefighters inside and two firefighters outside during a structure fire. This standard is designed to protect the firefighters. Without the two-in and two out staffing, the fire can only be fought from outside. There are exceptions that allow first responders to enter the structure if they have a clear sense that they can rescue a person they know to be in the building.
With the added response from Cal Fire, as well as other mutual support services, it seems that threshold is often, if not always met.
More Than Just Numbers
The issue, Chief explains, is not only how many, but how quickly they can get to the fire. It is not how many, but how long the fight goes on before additional resources are onsite to provide relief and expand the ability to fight the fire from multiple attacks. It is about the number of tasks the crew can do simultaneously. And it is about safety. Safety for the firefighters, for the people that are imperiled, and for the surrounding community that could be impacted by a spreading fire. Does the fourth person have to be a Cambria Fire resource? No, but having a fully staffed and trained department, who live train and go into the fire together has a very compelling upside.
Still, Why So Many?
I asked Chief Hollingsworth what additional value the three firefighters bring to the community. To answer that question we walked through a list of “jobs” that have fallen into the department’s list of chores.
The most prominent reason, other than firefighting, were automobile accidents. “Hmm, I thought, “tell me more!” So we walked through a few variants of an automobile accident. Assuming a single-car crash, the responding crews would need to:
Assess the situation
- Ascertain how many people were in the vehicle
- Identify the number of injuries/potential injuries
- Do they require multiple EMT/Paramedic action?
- Are there transport situations?
- Do the responding Ambulance crew(s) need assistance with assessing/moving/transporting patients?
- How damaged is the car?
- Can the crew open the doors and extract a victim, or
- Do they need to deploy heavy equipment to “open” the vehicle
- Is the car smoking?
- Is the car on fire?
- Is the car in a dangerous or precarious position that could lead to a more dangerous situation?
While this is happening, what is going on around the wreck?
- Is there a traffic control team ensuring proper safety – for the crew, for other motorists approaching the scene? For any other people in the area?
- Is there damage to any structures, trees, power lines that need to be secured?
I’m sure I’ve missed a few.
Now, start putting bodies against those tasks. Then, multiply by the number of cars and occupants that might be involved in a multi-vehicle crash. The resources begin to add up.
Interestingly, when I went up to Cal Fire Station 10 to get their view of the whole staffing/taxation discussion, the Captain on duty referenced the nearly exact scenario – and made specific reference to an accident that had occurred just two days prior. Multi-vehicle head-on collision, multiple injuries. The Cal Fire crew was first on the scene (the accident happened on 1, just down the street from the station.) Cambria Fire and Cambria Healthcare District Ambulance crews responded.
The Cal Fire Captain said, “I used every one of those guys.”
The Homebound and The Homeless
The list of duties went on; some were obvious, some not so much.
The CFD responds to different types of 911 calls, including things like domestic violence or other disturbances. Often they arrive before the Sheriff’s Deputies and need to wait for law enforcement to take the lead. These calls can go a lot of different ways, including medical emergencies. When the authorities do sweeps of homeless camps, the CFD assists in identifying dangerous conditions and taking steps to remove them.
Last week we did something I never thought I’d have to do here in Cambria. We added bulletproof vests and helmets to our emergency response equipment.
Protection through Prevention
The CFD spends time going into the community and assisting residents with maintaining their smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, changing batteries and making sure they are correctly placed and properly working.
Why does the Fire Department do that, I wondered. Simple – their duty to protect the citizens requires this type of effort. By bringing awareness to proper prevention measures, and ensuring that they are followed lives, and property are better protected. The insistent wail of a smoke detector might be the only alert many of us get before the intrusion of smoke and flame makes reacting to the danger manifestly more difficult.
So, why can’t other organizations take on that community service task? How about the Lions Club, or the American Legion, or any of the other Service organizations in town?
Chief Hollingsworth nodded, smiled a bit and asked me – “who do you think are members of those organizations? The very people who we are helping.”
Oh, yeah, right. Good point!
Hydro Hydra Hydrants
Fire Hydrant inspection and maintenance is a critical part of keeping the community safe. Much has been made over the years about how good or how poorly this critical task was performed. At this time the focused efforts to work through the hundreds of hydrants across the area is ongoing, with an estimated one-third of them checked and brought up to standard. This process takes time and manpower; higher staffing levels allow for a better division of labor and a better rate of progress.
Building inspections, both residential and commercial fall to the CFD to conduct or assist.
Just as Emergency Services from all around the county respond when called to assist Cambria, so do Cambria’s First responders when the alarm goes up.
Response obviously requires bodies, but it also needs those bodies to be highly trained and certified. It also requires that the equipment is properly outfitted and certified. This program takes time and effort, and personnel to cover shifts when some staff members are doing the things they need to do to stay current and to keep Cambria Fire in a position to both give and receive mutual aid.
The question of having some component of a volunteer fire department comes up frequently in the discussion. The history of America is ripe with stories of volunteer fire departments, manned by citizens of all ages who would drop everything and answer the fire alarm. These forces ranged from highly trained and drilled to loosely organized. Cambria was no different, and the long history of the department is filled with combinations of professional and volunteers working in various configurations. Within the community, volunteers participate in different emergency response teams and firesafe focus groups. The task of firefighting, however, has become a professional endeavor. As of this conversation, the number of available community volunteers who have the skill, training, and willingness to participate has fallen to two.
For Cambria Fire, a vital component of the force capability lies with the Reservists. Many of the reserve ranks are made up of people who see firefighting and emergency services as a career, and they invest their time – lots of time – money and energies into becoming skilled enough to begin that journey.
To become a Reservist, the candidate has to complete the required training and education to meet the minimum standard of a Firefighter 1. This training takes an estimated 600 plus hours – done at their own expense and with no guarantee of a paid position at the end. Tough sledding indeed, and all the while many of these candidates are working different jobs, going to school, taking care of themselves and sometimes their young families.
As grueling as this course is, they stick it out with the hope of gaining a position with agencies like Cambria Fire, where they can get the experience and resume-building skills and certifications that are necessary to advance through the ranks.
Chief Hollingsworth shares that a person who wanted a position as a volunteer firefighter would need to go through the same training and certification process, with the attendant costs, to qualify. With a population that sees the original Woodstock as a generational touchstone, the reality of finding even a small number of folks with the physical, emotional and dedication to service to take on this role, well, not going to happen. The spirit is willing, but the flesh would prefer to leave it to the professionals.
What About Cal Fire?
One constant that finds its way into the conversation is the protection provided by Cal Fire Station 10, located in the northern part of town. Where the landscape changes from mostly residential and commercial to more open land, bordered by a rising mountain range, state parks and on up Highway 1 to Big Sur. With a charter to protect state lands and all that reside on and around them, this station has a bit of a complicated personality. From the staffing levels that change depending on the season to the different types of equipment they use, these first responders need to be ready for anything.
The crews respond to calls within Cambria, and depending on location and where they are when a call comes in can be first on the scene. Cal Fire crews are trained and certified in multiple disciplines and work with Cambria Fire and Cambria Healthcare Ambulance to provide a first responder force with tremendous capabilities that save lives and livelihoods.
Lunchtime at Station 10
I had the opportunity to spend a short time at the station, and the duty crew (who were very polite about me interrupting their lunch) shared their thoughts on what they do, and how they partner with Cambria Fire and other responders.
The Captain (I didn’t capture his name) gave me a rundown of the capabilities of his team, and the different types of tools and equipment they use to respond to different situations. He described the working relationship with Cambria Fire, sharing that the relationship was very good – better than it had been at other times in the past.
He shared that his crew covers a broad swath of geography, and deal with an exciting range of situations from structure fires, wildland fires, mountain rescues, cliffside recoveries, and ocean events. Some of these responses are shared with the teams from Cambria Fire and others they handle on their own.
Staffing the Station
I asked about the staffing model Cal Fire uses at Station 10. He told me that it varied; in “fire season” the crew had four firefighters. During the non-fire season, the station is manned by a crew of three. Duties are a bit different between the two organizations, and the types of firetrucks they deploy have different configurations and capabilities. Cal Fire uses both Type 1 and Type 3 trucks, with Type 3 designed for more effectiveness in wildland fires, and Type 1 (which is the primary engine Cambria Fire uses) more the traditional type for areas like Cambria.
Our conversation turned to the current Cambria discussion. I asked him about the contention that Station 10 was sometimes left uncovered when they were called out to a remote location or to provide aid to another agency across the state. He was pretty clear that, in his experience, the periods of time the station was “empty” were not very long, and that when they were dispatched to a call complimentary crews from other locations were sent to backfill. This could be hours, but in his memory, he hadn’t seen anything like a day or more.
One of the challenges of having crews from outside the area can be the lack of familiarity, particularly of the densely clustered residential streets of Cambria. This lack of first-hand knowledge can slow response times as the replacement crews navigate the often difficult streets and roads to get to the incident. Being on the wrong type of truck can have a bit of a narrowing effect on capabilities, but most times the total response provides the capabilities to attack a fire with a more than a reasonable chance for success.
So, to the question of three or four personnel on the Cambria Fire crew, he gave a very pragmatic answer. “Of course, having four is better. You never know what you’re going to walk into and having enough manpower makes things safer.” Not a full-throated endorsement nor a strong rejection. Just his view.
As I was writing this piece, Cambria and the nearby town of Morro Bay each experienced a structure fire within a 24 hour period. We got to see what a collaborative mutual aid response looks like. A prominent Cambrian, who got a way-too-close look at the incident labeled that response “Magnificent!” The men and women who show up ready to serve are just that – and more.
The conversation will continue right up to decision day, June 5th. The community has so many smart, involved and concerned members passionate about all things Cambria. There are many questions yet to ask, many discussions to have, many debates to engage the minds and passions of all sides. Issues of fairness, loyalty, fear and confusion will likely cycle through each exchange, and hopefully suss out enough good knowledge so everyone will feel comfortable with their vote.
I’m going to keep poking at this, and in the end come to my own decision. As we all must.
Till next time…