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Small Town, Big Challenges

Beautiful Cambria is a glorious, tangled stitch of a community, full of all the characters that present a fertile field of archetypes for writers in all genres. Real people with real experiences, built from lives lived here, there and the other places we never heard of or never really cared much about.

All of these characters make the community what it is, and what it does.

This is Us?

Each member, from a grizzled rancher who lives independently from the rest, to the retired couples who have made their way here, drawn by the peace and pace of the place. Lifetime residents who have seen the area grow and change, much to their dismay. Lifetime residents who have seen the town grow and change, and embrace and encourage an evolution of culture and spirit. Passers-by who come for a while, turn restless or weary and move on to the next adventure. And the visitors who come to experience the near-mysterious charm of the place, either as a stop on a longer journey, or a recurring destination marked on the vacation calendar, or a holiday gathering, or drawn back by a special memory of an emotional milestone.

All of us, regardless of the how, when and why of our presence here, share in the benefits and in the responsibilities of keeping each other protected.

It becomes challenging to figure out exactly who is “here”; this leads to a conga line of difficult questions around how we keep safe. Heck, what is “safe?” How do you define it? How do you quantify it? How do you apply it?

And even in idyllic Cambria, the question looms – “how do you pay for it?”

In broad terms, Cambria has three critical columns of need that impact the community -Health, Safety, and Education. They are in many ways interdependent, but complex enough to require specialized oversight by a combination of experts and involved citizens.

And they all cost money.

How do I serve thee? Let me count the ways…


I can’t imagine anything more critical to the health and safety of a community – and by extension a county, state, region, country, and a planet – than education. Without even a bare minimum of formal learning opportunities, how do we grow? Without knowledge, how do we maintain where we are? The old saying “how quickly we forget” is pure truth.

Children can and do learn their lessons wherever they appear; organized and managed schools provide an opportunity to start building the fundamentals of good health – physical, emotional and social health that nurture and sustain communities and cultures.

We don’t all have the same takeaways from the same lessons, and that’s what makes for vibrant societies. In a perfect universe, we would all learn how to communicate with each other with a minimum of rancor. We should argue, debate, challenge and share with the goal of coming to better decisions. No need to agree with everything, but at least put in the effort to understand what it is that makes up the disagreement.

Firefighting Services
normal_Cambria_CACambria is home to a professional Fire Department, which developed over time from a traditional volunteer organization to its current staff of professional firefighters, paramedics and EMT’s. The department is officially part of the Cambria Community Services District and led by a veteran, Cambria-bred Fire Chief who reports up to the CSD General Manager. Chief Hollingsworth came up through the ranks and is incredibly well-versed in all aspects of building and managing a department that provides services that extend well beyond the ladder. They respond to emergency and non-emergency calls that range from fires to medical assist calls, traffic accidents, citizen assists, ocean rescue, hydrant inspection and maintenance, building inspections and a range of community activities, most notably the Cambria Fire Safe committee and the Cambria Emergency Response Team.

Chief Hollingsworth and his team are highly visible in the community, engaging with citizens, answering questions and offering safety advice. As the “Chief Operating Officer” for the Department, he regularly briefs the community on the activities the CFD has going on, as well as providing a much-needed linkage to Firefighting/Emergency Services across the state and the nation.

More Professionals

SolidRedGlobeCambria also houses a CalFire station. That team works alongside the CFD and has a set of skills and expertise (and availability to next-level resources) that are critical in the geography of the San Luis Obispo County North Coast. With miles and miles of rugged coastline, forested hills and dense, mountainous ranges served by narrow roads, the breadth of emergencies that require a response is not trivial. Together these professional firefighting organizations provide great front-line support to Cambria and the surrounding region.


Healthcare District

healthdistrictThe Cambria Community Healthcare District adds another dimension to the Emergency
Services picture for Cambria and the surrounding regions. California has discrete Health Care Districts throughout the state. In simple terms, they are chartered with providing vital healthcare support services to communities that fall outside established or incorporated areas that have more standard healthcare services.

The primary and most visible presence of the CHD is the Ambulance Corps. This service consists of multiple ambulances and crews that field combinations of Paramedics and EMT’s.
These first responders cover an area that is larger than that covered by the CCSD-operated Fire Department. They range farther north, through San Simeon and at times go past the SLO County line and into Monterrey county. They also extend farther south and are often called in to support other area Emergency Services under reciprocal agreements. They currently operate two staffed ambulances that are on duty 7 x 24.
The agency operates apart from the Emergency Services provided by the Cambria Fire Department. Funding and governance are distinct. The CHD first responders and Cambria Fire employees are covered by different unions. Employees of the two agencies sometimes pull shifts for the opposite agency. They often service the same calls in support of each other.


The similarities, differences, overlaps and distinct responsibilities are of course more complex than I’ve captured here. They become more important, however when viewed through the lens of the complete Emergency Services capabilities required by Cambria and the surrounding population. The effect on the community, both positive and negative, probably deserves a serious conversation. Given the divisions within the boards of the respective governing agencies, it would take a heroic effort to get that discussion started.

In the meantime, the collective cadre of First Responders will continue to deliver their best efforts regardless of patch or title.

How Many?

The Cambria Fire Department traditionally staffed responding fire trucks with three people; a Captain, and Engineer, and a Reserve Firefighter. This model allowed for good response coverage to most emergency situations, but it has limitations. Under current guidelines Firefighters responding to structure fires must follow the rule of two; to fight a structure fire from inside, there must be (at least) 2 firefighters inside, and two firefighters outside. They all must be in communication with each other. This process provides a measure of safety for the firefighters. So, if a house is on fire, and the responding fire crew only has three people, the most they can do is fight the blaze from outside until more manpower arrives. I believe there is an exception that would allow firefighters to enter the structure if they had a high degree of certainty that a person was trapped inside and they could affect a rescue.


Two years ago, the CFD applied for and was awarded a SAFER grant, which funded an additional three firefighters for two years. This additional staffing gave CFD the ability to deploy four people on the truck, which in turn gave them the ability to fight structure fires from inside and outside as needed. The additional staffing also put the CFD in a position to attain and comply with other professional standards and practices.

With the grant funding set to run out at the end of March, a decision has to be made whether the community wants to keep the additional three firefighters, and if so how they would be funded. The way forward appears to be through a tax on parcels within the district; this approach would require raising a ballot measure that would be put in front of Cambria voters on June 5th, as part of the statewide primary scheduled for that date.

The target amount that would need to be raised was $300,000 , which would be spread across the tax base the board determined to be appropriate.

“Never yell FIRE in a crowded Vet’s Hall.”

The process of making the ballot measure happen falls to the CCSD Board of Directors. They would need to agree that a public vote was the right path to follow. Then they would have to agree on the specifics of the ballot measure, draft the appropriate language with the help of CSD staff and legal counsel, and put it again to a vote; the motion had to be extremely specific and reflect exactly what would appear on the June ballot. The process needed to move quickly, as the steps between motion and public vote had deadlines that had to be met. If they weren’t, the measure would likely be pushed to the November election.

The measure also needed to be discussed in open session, and the public had to have the opportunity to give their input.


In the days leading up to the public meeting advocates of the proposal, led by members of the Firefighter’s local and their supporters, went out into the community to ask for support. They came prepared and made their case door-to-door, in public gathering places, and visits to local businesses. Their efforts paid off, as the Vet’s Hall was packed with Cambrians, fellow Emergency Services personnel from the surrounding areas, and their colleagues from the Cambria Health District Ambulance Corps. Every speaker who rose during public comment favored moving forward with the ballot proposal. The Board President had a bit of a challenge managing the public, as it seemed they viewed it more as a town hall meeting rather than an official Board meeting. None the less, everyone was heard, and the board then moved to discussion. They agreed to proceed with the ballot measure but hit some rough spots when determining exactly “who” would be subject to the proposed tax.

Equitable Equity

Cambria, as noted earlier, can be tough to “count.” Within the District, there are different types of parcels. There are parcels that are described as “improved,” meaning they have a water meter and more than likely a structure. The number of parcels with this designation appears to be around 3600, give or take.

Next up are the parcels that are “unimproved,” – no water connection and no structure. These lots further break out into different subsets, including those with a “water position,” meaning that they are on the list that could receive a water connection when many restrictions are lifted, including an existing building moratorium governed by the county. (The issues are significantly more complex, but for the sake of this piece, I’ll leave it there.)

Another group of parcels has no connections, no position on the water wait list, and most likely will never move to “improved” status. There are also parcels that have been “retired” through a donation to different land trusts and conservation organizations. Add to these properties that are owned by the CCSD and other government agencies that are not subject to taxation. A complex problem that would need to be sussed before the measure could be written.

What is fair?

So then, which parcels should be taxed? Those that are designated as improved? They have the most “skin” in the game and the most to lose in the event of a fire. But why would other parcel owners not be also taxed? An event could begin on their parcel and spread to adjoining properties; the risk is there and should spread across the entire parcel population. Additionally, many lot owners don’t live within the boundaries served by the CCSD, and therefore will not be eligible to vote on the measure.

Math Problems

The math becomes challenging under either scenario. Assuming that the decision was made to tax the 3600 or so “Improved” parcels, the per- piece cost would be higher. The logic in support of this was based on a few factors, the main one being that the projected revenue would be known, whereas if the tax were extended to all parcels, the likelihood of predictable revenue would fall as lots are retired, merged or otherwise taken off the tax rolls. This could result in a declining revenue stream, leaving a future funding deficit.

Faced with these choices, the Board directed staff to come back with recommendations based on both scenarios. A follow-up meeting was scheduled for later in the week.

The public was somewhat disappointed with the lack of a decision, but most realized that the data needed to be clear before a decision could be made.

Round Two

The Board reconvened a few days later, ready to move the issue forward. The staff, as directed prepared two distinct resolutions. A rather startling fact was shared – what had been a $300,000 target on Monday became a $378,000 target on Thursday. This was explained by the Finance Manager, who, after a careful reconsideration and analysis, determined that the most sensible way to proceed was to base the levy on the highest rates the three firefighter positions could attain, rather than the previous calculation based on the average position rate.

Comments, questions and suggestions were offered by the community. The directors (minus Director Farmer, who was recovering for a recent surgery) went through the pros and cons of the two options, and ultimately voted on the proposal that would cover all taxable parcels.

Next Steps

The staff, with guidance from legal council will prepare and submit the required paperwork to have the measure placed on the June ballot. It is estimated to cost the District – ratepayers – between $10,000 and $20,000 to execute this effort.

Felix Ungar: I was just repeating what I thought you said.

Oscar Madison: Well, don’t repeat what you THOUGHT I said, repeat what I said! My god, that’s irritating!  From Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple”

The In-Between Time

The statistics that measure what the different Emergeny Services teams do are pretty interesting. And surprising.  How much time do firefighters spend fighting fires?  How many ambulances show up at the average call for service?  How many EMT’s and Paramedics do we have, and where do they live, organizationally?  How are the different Emergency Services managed, measured and compensated?  What services are redundant, what services are “extras”, and what value do they bring to the community?  Are taxpayers and ratepayers paying for too much redundancy, or not enough capability?  What does the rest of the county, the state and the country do to provide these services?

More on that next time (unless I’m “encouraged” to ignore it all!)

(For an interesting look at the challenges Fire Departments  around the county face, read this terrific article by journalist Karen Garcia in the New Times.)