NOTE: There are readers of this blog who don’t live in Cambria but are interested in the successes and challenges of people from all over this wacky planet. So, for my friends in faraway places like Hollis, New Hampshire and Mount Vernon, New York, I will try to do a zippy summary of the current situation and the recent history that brought us here. I will probably miss a thing or two, but no worries. There will be a long line of locals happy to fill in my gaps!
Let me explain. No, it is too much; let me sum up.
From “The Princess Bride”
Cambria fire protection services evolved from an all-volunteer force to a professionally staffed and managed emergency services department that responds to all types of hazardous events. Through the evolution, the community has explored different options to staff and manage this critical function. Several years back the Cambria Community Services District, which has responsibility for the Fire Department, began exploring options that would contract out fire protection to Cal Fire, the state agency that protects much of California. They also provide different levels of local management and staffing to communities that are not in a position to provide those services themselves.
The community was split on how to proceed, so a decision was made to enter into a short-term agreement with Cal Fire to provide management of the Cambria Fire Department, giving everyone time to see if a broader and more permanent arrangement would make sense. The timing of this was right, as the Cambria Fire Chief was retiring, and Cal Fire could fill that role during the evaluation period. In the end, the CCSD determined that it was better for the community to maintain control over the Department. With good data in hand and input from the Cal Fire Chief who served as the interim leader, the board moved forward. After a series of interviews, a new Chief was appointed to lead Cambria Fire.
The CFD continued on a path to modernization and standardization, using the guidelines, principles and best practices of state, regional and national firefighting organizations and regulatory agencies, such as OSHA. They moved to align with the standards for staffing, training, tools, and equipment and applied the rigorous metrics associated with those practices to measure where they were and what they needed to do to achieve those standards.
During this evolution, grant opportunities arose, and Cambria Fire was awarded a SAFER grant which provided funding to hire three additional firefighters. The addition of these three professional/career resources allowed CFD to staff the engine company with a crew of 4 – a captain, an engineer, a firefighter and a reservist. The optimum goal is to staff an engine with four career firefighters, but the reality is that is not a practical or affordable model for most smaller communities, including Cambria.
(The goal for CFD is to have four people on the engine – three career and one reserve. This has caused some confusion as the definitions used have not always been clear. The funding proposal covers the third career firefighter; the fourth will remain a reservist position.)
The Clock Is Ticking
The grant had a life of two years, after which the funding would stop, and the cost of these firefighters would fall back to Cambria. It was expected that during the two-year period funding would be explored through the budgeting process. Cambria receives tax money from the county, with a portion of that earmarked for fire protection. Of that allocation, a part is set aside for “administration and overhead.” Over time that allocation of funds has become a bit murky, perhaps being used for other expenses. During the last budgeting cycle, CFD had budgeted for the cost of the three firefighters. However, that funding was removed as part of the Board’s decision to have a balanced budget. So, as the two-year clock moved closer to expiring, the real possibility of losing the three firefighters drove the conversation towards solving the problem. The CFD requested funding. The board looked at the budget and saw no money to fulfill the request. They determined that the most appropriate way to deal with the situation was to put it before the community in the form of a ballot measure. If approved by two-thirds of the eligible voters, a tax of $62.15 would be levied on each parcel in Cambria (with exceptions for CCSD owned and a few other parcels.) The measure is scheduled for a vote on June 5th.
The Ballot Measure along with the Pro and Con Arguments and rebuttals can be found under the heading Cambria Community Services District Special Tax, Measure A-18 HERE
Debate or Discuss?
As we roll into the second month of discussion the conversation has spread out into different areas and positions become more aggressive. Some citizens are demanding a full-on debate of the pros and cons, with representitives of each side slugging it out (respectfully) under the supervision of a neutral organization. Other citizens (including me) are looking for town-hall style informational meetings where representitives from the involved organizations can share information and take questions from the attendees, with the goal of allowing us all to make decisions based on what we hear and see. Both options have merits, and hopefully we won’t get hung up on an either-or situation.
Where’s My Lamp?
Through this all I have been trying to gather as much information and as many viewpoints as possible, and at the same time maintain my own open-mindedness and neutral position until one clear set of factors tips me one way or the other. Of course, I could also abstain from making a choice on the matter…
Yet I seem to find myself advocating for the firefighters, even though I am not convinced that their argument is the right one. It feels more like an issue of fairness than a matter of fact. And as we know, facts can be very easy to spin.
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Popular line attributed to former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli
So here are some facts I’ve been able to gather from various knowledgeable sources.
Facts or Fear, or Fearsome Facts?
Responding to a request for data, Cambria Fire’s Chief Hollingsworth sent me some statistics on the number of incidents that CFD responded to between 2007 and 2017.The data represented “fire” incidents, and revealed the following:
From email of 3/5/2017 “During the above-mentioned time frame, there were 157 fire incidents within the primary response area of Cambria Fire. This averages 15.7 fire calls per year or just more than 1 per month. This excludes all automatic and mutual aid responses. Of those 157 fire incidents, they break down as follows:
- Residential structure fires 61
- Commercial structure fires 24
- Wildland fires 28
- Vehicle fires 15
- Debris/other fires 29
Of the 157 fire incidents, Cambria Fire handled 54 of them alone, with no response from Cal Fire or any other agency. Of that same number, 3 were handled solely by Cal Fire (station 10). These 3 incidents were relatively small and occurred while Cambria Fire units were committed to other incidents.”
Good information. Hard numbers. But how then do we take that data and turn it into information? I could use it as a counter to the position that states “Cal Fire responds to EVERY call in Cambria.” Really? The data says that over the measured timeframe they, in fact, did not respond to over a third of fire calls in Cambria (or 34.39% if percentages as numbers are more dramatic.) Conversely, Cambria Fire did not respond to less than 2% of fire incidents in Cambria.
So I asked a few follow-up questions, including why there would be such a gap in response from Cal Fire, and whether the Mutual Aid agreement with Cal Fire was in place over the measured timeframe.
Chief replied, “Short answer is yes, MA agreement has been around for a long time. We are part of California Master Mutual Aid. The solo responses are most likely based upon necessity. For instance, an oven fire or dryer fire may only get units from our agency. A small roadside spot fire may only get one unit. Additionally, some of those may be single resource responses from our agency because there was no assistance available from station 10, and other MA responders were canceled because they were not needed. However, there is no way as to discern the difference.”
So there are the facts, and there is the information on those facts.
More Fun With Facts
I had a similar experience with the Cal Fire management team responsible for staffing and manpower, and more particularly the process for ensuring that Cal Fire Station 10 was always manned, thereby providing the critical backup and support to Cambria Fire.
First, I called station 10 and spoke with the duty captain. I asked him about how the “move up and cover” process worked, and if Station 10 was left uncovered for extended periods. He was very cordial but said he really couldn’t give me a reliable answer as Station 10 was not his primary assignment. He suggested I call down to the offices in SLO to get more specifics.
Hailed To The Chief
I reached out to the office of Chief Scott Jalbert, the person responsible for managing the resources for Cal Fire in San Luis Obispo. I had a lovely conversation with Janet, a member of the Chief’s staff, who listened to my request for data, asked clarifying questions, and committed to getting me answers. She called me back later the same day and provided me with basic information related to Station 10 calls and responses for 2017. In summary, the numbers showed that Station 10 responded to 796 calls. Of the 796, 545 calls were specific to Cambria. This leaves 251 calls that took them away from the Cambria area.
I asked Janet about the process that Cal Fire uses to ensure that Station 10, which is designated as a “Must Cover” station, is adequately manned. She shared a high-level view of the move up and cover process, and when asked said the gap time generally fell between 15 and 40 minutes, depending on where the covering engine was coming from.
Sensing my skepticism, she offered to connect me directly to Chief Jalbert.
Tell Me More
When he came on the line, I explained again what I was calling about and why. He graciously walked me through in more detail the process of move up and cover, using a cul-de-sac analogy to demonstrate the rotation they follow. He also repeated the 15 – 40-minute timeframe to get a cover engine up to Cambria. Still skeptical (having driven from various places in the county where these cover engines would come from, while also realizing that my driving skill is so weak that Mr. Magoo shakes his head in disbelief) I asked a few more questions. One main one – ok, if 15-40 minutes is the range of time you use, how often are those times met? Meaning, how many move up and cover engines actually got to Cambria within that range? It turns out that number isn’t tracked, so I don’t know if it always happens, never happens, or somewhere in between. Does the percentage really matter? Well, sure, if the assumption is that Cal Fire is always here, or they will always be here almost right away.
I also asked him about the assertion that replacement crews can come from farther away, including other counties throughout California. He agreed that it could indeed happen, but it would be a highly unusual circumstance where all hell was breaking loose across the state, and things were unfolding in a rapid and unpredictable way. Like the Thomas Fire. Or the Chimney Fire. Or the Santa Rosa Fire, or the Montecito mudslides, or…
We also had a brief discussion on staffing and in particular volunteers and reservists. He chuckled and said, ” I’m working on my PowerPoint as we speak, talking about the challenges I face in staffing all the areas we are responsible for, including Los Osos.” All the fire services on the central coast are facing the same problem of finding, training hiring and retaining capable personnel. And they are all pulling from the same resource pool. The Central Coast is an expensive place to live, and the range of coverage types complicates the issue. Volunteers, as known in the past, don’t exist anymore in this area. Multiple departments, including Cal Fire, use reservists, who are trained as level 1 firefighters, to fill staffing gaps. They are contracted in different ways, including scheduled paid shift, on-call, and emergency call out. Many of these folks work other jobs, and may or may not be available to respond. They may also have to choose between their primary job(s) or respond as firefighters, often at an hourly wage that is below what they get through other employment. This problem continues to exist and grow and has been documented and confirmed by multiple fire department leaders from Cal Fire to Morro Bay to Chief Hollingsworth.
Here’s a link to a recent news report on KSBY.
Additional reporting by Karen Garcia of New Times on the state of firefighting support for neighboring Cayucos HERE
Miles To Go
So we have the numbers, and we have the “color.” I’ll just add a brief anecdote; when I relayed the 15-40 minute coverage data to a CFD member, the response was basically “OK, but I can tell you that just today Cambria Fire covered all of Station 10’s area as they were out of service. Since they were not on an official call, there was no move up and cover engine.”
To borrow a device that is being used to argue against the measure, I will now deploy what I think of as a “syllogistic hanging chad.” Leave the ominous questions out there, causing people to get really nervous about what might happen. Aristotle wept.
Are non-call activities that take Station 10 out of service for an extended time – be it one hour or 4, tracked and managed? Or are there informal practices and agreements to mutually cover that are normal operational events that work both ways? Does it matter? Only if during one of these times something goes boom and there are bald spots in critical coverage…
One final note on Cal Fire – every member of the service I spoke with was unfailingly polite, willing to answer all my questions and give the best information they had to offer. They all spoke well of Cambria Fire, and they all expressed a real reluctance to become embroiled in any of the politics around the issue. They, like the CFD members, are focused on protecting the communities they serve, and protecting each other from the dangers, physical and otherwise, they face in a tough and unrelenting environment.
Every member of the Cambria Fire Department, from the Chief to the reservists, have been equally polite and committed to open and honest discussion. This really is as local as an issue gets, and while the firefighters are members of a union, this isn’t a union battle.
It would be great if we didn’t turn this into a divide or pit either fire service against the other.
Bits and Pieces
Interesting guidelines that cover Cal Fire”s responsibilities under a cooperative fire protection agreement.
(No. 137 May 2017)
- When considering potential Amador Plan cooperative fire protection agreements under PRC §4144, the following guidelines will be used:
- The efficiency of ofCALFire’s fire protection system in its primary mission of wildland fire protection, as well as response to major fires or other natural disasters will not be reduced or impaired. CAL Fire’s ability to assign fire protection resources to areas of the state during periods of critical fire weather or major fires shall receive priority over agreements made with local entities pursuant to PRC §4144.
- CAL FIRE resources and personnel will be assigned, in accordance with PRC §4144(c), to provide the most efficient protection for both the state and local mission.
- Each applicant must submit a statement of fire protection need to the Unit Chief that will include a map that delineates the area to be protected. This statement of need will be submitted to the Director with the initial request for service. A copy will be retained in the Unit file.