Quote

The Letter

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I’m having one of those days where past and present seem to swim together, leaving little wakes that diverge and overlap, rising and falling in free form. I’m feeling like these should somehow be tied together in a story, but I’m kind of afraid of screwing it up by forcing these thoughts and feelings into combinations that sound right in theory but kinda suck in practice.

But that never stopped me before, so…

Then and Now

I was happy to see that the business I devoted a lot of my life’s second act to today emerged as a stand-alone enterprise, free from the constraints of a larger corporate brand that at times helped, but also hindered the healthy evolution of a premier brand in a niche industry.

Pitney Bowes Document Messaging Technologies is now BlueCrest, with a new brand, a new market freedom, and I am sure the same hungry spirit, staffed by creative, innovative technologists and thought leaders. 

Catching glimpses of familiar faces in tweets and press releases was a gift I wasn’t expecting. I am happy for them, and a little envious that I’m not there to experience their next successful chapter.

Go get’ em, BlueCrest!

Document Messaging Technologies-BlueCrest  

Leadership

Over the course of my career, I got to experience leadership in all shapes and styles. When I wandered into Danbury looking for a short-term temp job to help me support my family, (as playwright Robert Andersen once said, “you can make a killing but you can’t make a living in the theatre”) the production mail business was very small, and very much behind in the industry. That changed rapidly, driven by a team of brilliant designers, engineers, field service professionals and support groups that somehow managed to take what at the time was undisciplined, adventurous passion and energy and form a world-class organization.

Building that business required a leadership team that could harness the chaos, set big goals and motivate everyone to work together. They had to figure out how to deal with the brilliant, the stubborn, the dreamers and the grind it out-ers who had to come together to build the business.

From the outside, that leadership team may have looked just as diverse and disheveled as the rest of the workforce. But they were far from that. Today, as I sit in the back of the room watching and listening as our community leaders make sense of complicated issues, I find myself thinking about lessons I learned from those who mentored me. I remember things they said and did, things that are stored away in my mental file cabinet, available for revisiting and reuse.

Empowerment, Given And Taken

‘It’s your business, do what you think.’ Brian Baxendale, a gregarious and insightful leader, had the ability to see the potential capabilities of an employee and provide the right amount of permission tempered with the right amount of firm guidance. He remains an inspiration to many of us who got the chance to try things, to fail, and to try again.  

Cambria’s recent struggle with the issues around our Fire Department gave our community an opportunity to engage in passionate debate about how we view our world, and how we want to see it in the future. Cambria is rich in so many ways, but that richness doesn’t extend to the financial realities many of us face.  It has been interesting to observe and participate in the spirited discussions in support of or in opposition to a tax measure that would fund three firefighter positions. The conversations revealed more political and philosophical facets than I expected.

There were supporters of the measure who face real economic pressures, yet valued the service the firefighters bring to the community. There were those who feel the same economic pressures who opposed the measure because it would have a real impact on them. Many of us are staring at increased costs for all the services we rely on, with limited opportunities for a complimentary increase in personal income. There are people who are more financially secure who supported the measure because the tax would not cause them pain, and the additional capabilities were viewed as cheap insurance against a high-probability fire event. There were those similarly positioned who believe the extra manpower was unnecessary, as the coverage provided by both local and county/CalFire departments is more than sufficient. There are supporters who respond emotionally (“these are our guys!!!”) and detractors who see everything as corrupt and driven by greed (those bastards are at it again!!!)  And there are many, both supporters and opponents, who check some of the boxes in all of these categories.

A Loss

The reality though is that after all the tumult the measure was not successful. The supporters delivered a 54% tally, which fell considerably short of the required supermajority of 66%.  

Analysis of the outcome provided some insights, notably that within each area of Cambria those who voted – and voter turnout was not great – delivered a majority “yes” vote. Like they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades… but is there a message in the 54%, beyond just winning and losing?  

bigboard

Can I get the Home Version of “Steve Kornacki’s Big Board”?

Informal polling, which has mainly been me asking people stuff, revealed that there was a real information gap in what the measure would do and how it would affect the fire services going forward. I was surprised to find that some folks thought the tax would add three additional members to the fire department. They did not realize that the defeat of the measure would result in the loss of three full-time professional firefighters. Of course, there were a lot of good, reasoned “no” votes, based on well-informed and considered rationale.

They Persisted

‘I’d like to try anyway.’   Ajay Ghia combined a studious, low-key approach with an unshakable determination to follow a course he knew was right. While presenting an acquisition recommendation to the corporate “C Suite” , he was met with a curt “you’re not going to convince me this is a good idea” from a notoriously difficult executive. After a beat Ajay replied, “I’d like to try anyway.” He then made a presentation that supported his position. The executive still did not agree, but he didn’t expressly kill the idea. Ajay and team went on to follow his strategy, the acquisition was made, and it became the platform for a series of systems that transformed the competitive landscape.

The members of the Cambria Fire Department are a determined and committed team who believe what they do is essential and critical to the health and safety of the community. They are also very dedicated to each other’s safety and success. As the community wrestled with the questions posed by Measure A-18, the firefighters continued to seek out ways to fund the three at-risk positions. The three firefighters had been hired under an earlier SAFER grant, which covered the cost for a period of two years. One of those efforts entailed applying for a second SAFER grant from FEMA.

Same Name, Different Rules

The difference between the first grant and the second grant is not trivial. Having seen the lack of follow-up from many communities who received the first round of grant funding, FEMA changed the rules and added a requirement that the governing agencies (CCSD) had to commit in writing to increasing levels of matching funds across the life of the award. This requirement raised the barrier to success considerably.   As opposed to the revenue A-18 would have provided, the cost of the match would fall to the CCSD, and by extension the community, with no additional revenue source to cover the expense.

Ready, Fire, Aim

‘Interesting, but Irrelevant’ Rick Jablonski, Sales Leader and strategist, would occasionally use this phrase when discussions would wander a bit and stall on issues that were tangential to the decisions that needed to be made. I find myself using it a lot lately.

Because the challenge wasn’t daunting enough, the staff report, required when matters are put before the board for consideration, contained a suggestion that funds currently directed to the support and maintenance of the Fiscalini Ranch might be redirected to the fire department. The funding deficit that would be then applied to the ranch would be filled by a potential parcel tax that would be dedicated to the ranch upkeep.

(Cue inspirational music)

The Fiscalini Ranch is a majestic oasis, with a history that in many ways defines Cambria.

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Note to self – remember sunscreen!

It means many things to many people, and there are community-based organizations that dedicate time and money to keep it safe and vital. Walking the bluff trail and sitting on one of the unique and beautiful benches is my version of going to church. 

I don’t quite know where that proposal came from, or how much thought went into the ramifications of proposing it in this context, but it sure landed with a big BOOM. Suggesting that taking steps to “unfriend” the Ranch stirred a response that filled the cozy meeting room with community members who likely would riot (politely and gently) should the suggested actions gain approval.

Reverberations!

‘Is this resonating?’ Bernie Gracy has been described as having “a brain the size of a small planet.” He was and is a tireless innovator with a passion for 100 + slide PowerPoint presentations, delivered with spell-binding energy and intelligence. He would always make sure to pause, wave his arm in front of the screen and ask the audience “is this resonating?”  A great reminder to validate that what we say is well understood.

This suggestion did two things; one positive and one amazingly damaging. On the positive side, the immediate and passionate response brought into crisp focus just how much the community will support and protect the Ranch. A smaller, though equally important effect, was carrying more of the community to the meeting, where they could see and hear the issues in person, and not have to rely on others, including me, to tell them what happened. Many of us who share our views and recollections do so through the lens of our own positions, which can unfairly shade the story as it is retold. A shining exception to that is Kathe Tanner, our long-serving journalist who has seen it all and told it all. Her report of the meeting was crisp, factual and spin-free.

The damaging part of the recommendation was that it cast the firefighters as villains, and gave fuel to opponents who had both subtly and overtly positioned them in that light throughout the discussion leading up to the June vote. That battle was pretty brutal, and the rank and file of our small but mighty fire department were put in the position to represent themselves in the debate.  They had the disadvantage of being firefighters and not accomplished debaters, opinion shapers, or skillful public commentators. Nor were they inclined to get down in the mud with some opponents filled with a weird rage built on a worldview that everything CCSD is corrupt, incompetent, greedy or otherwise evil. Instead, they had to make their case again, having seen the community not support their cause through the ballot box, yet facing what they believe is a serious staffing shortfall.

Facts and Reason

What was meant to be a simple, administrative and policy discussion to determine if the required letter of commitment should be issued quickly changed as the Board saw the furor the public release of the supporting staff report set off across the town. Board President Amanda Rice did an excellent job of setting the correct expectations for what was to be discussed and considered, and what was not to be considered. The ” not” was the linkage of Ranch funding to Firefighter funding, or any other method for funding the required grant match. The other members of the board added similar commentary, and also expressed a bit of discomfort with the inclusion of it in the report. This demonstration of leadership from the board went a long way towards averting unnecessary and destructive commentary from a rightfully upset gathering of citizens and Ranch lovers.

The Public, Speaking 

‘Here’s my sense of the thing…’was the signal that Karl Schumacher had finished his process of examining an issue and coming to a recommendation. This phrase artfully set the table for a well-reasoned and insightful answer rather than a partisan position. Amazingly effective and diplomatic.

Objections

With the floor open for public comment, community members shared their thoughts on the issue at hand. Most of the comments were in opposition to the request for commitment. Some arguments were made using perceived deficiencies and inaccuracies in the grant application, and the long-range financial impact the funding requirement would have on the fiscal health of the district. Issues raised also included the thought that the recent defeat of A-18 was a clear signal that the community had spoken and did not want tax dollars spent on funding the fire department positions. This position had been shared by a fair number of people on social media prior to the meeting.

Support

I spoke in favor of supporting the grant, sharing my belief that the staffing levels advocated by the fire department, and endorsed by every fire professional I had interviewed, were both sensible and necessary. I also shared my dismay at the proposal to take from Fiscalini and give to Fire Department, likening the use of that tactic to Fake News – tossing an incendiary topic into the middle of a serious issue, resulting in a splatter of shrapnel that causes injury to common sense and thoughtful discourse. I also made a pitch for treating those with opposing views, and in this particular situation our firefighters, with less disdain and more respect.  Cambria Health District Board President Jerry Wood, speaking as a private citizen, also voiced support for the measure.

Convincing

The most resonant and reasoned presentation came from Ted Siegler, a highly capable and respected community member with in-depth knowledge of the District’s financial condition as well as the working of the Fiscalini Ranch. Ted has served and continues to serve in leadership roles on multiple committees and boards, including the CCSD Finance Committee and Fiscalini Ranch organizations. I think I also saw him on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Armed Services committee, but that may have been different prominent white-haired guys.

Ted laid out a clear set of facts, challenged some of the numbers that were included in the staff report, and concluded with the position that due to the district’s fiscal condition it would be irresponsible to take on additional financial responsibilities with no offsetting increase in revenues. It was practically impossible, absent a purely emotional motivation, to disagree with his findings and recommendation.

Decision Time

The talking stick was returned to the board, and they had further discussion about what they were about to decide. Cambria Fire Captain and grant writer Emily Torlano answered questions and clarified some information about how the grant was written and submitted. She noted that there was a question in the grant application that asked if the agency would like to request a financial hardship waiver of the matching funds requirement. The decision to check “no” had been made based on previous practice and with the thought that checking “yes” might have a negative impact on the application. It should be noted that the grant application process was begun well before Measure A-18 was placed on the ballot – a reasonable action given the uncertainty of the funding options to maintain the three firefighters hired under the original grant.

Before voting, the question was raised whether the Grant Application could be amended to change the hardship checkbox to “yes.” It was clear that the vote was going to go against the request, and options including not responding at all, returning with a brief decline – to – commit funding letter, or something else that would have the same effect but not incur a red mark against Cambria should future grant opportunities arise. In the end, the language used in the letter articulated the reasons for the decision to not commit. They were: District’s uncertain financial condition, and the defeat of Measure A -18. 

Next 

The decision the board made, while disappointing to some of us, was the right one for the community. As messy as it got, the Board showed solid thinking, compassionate listening, and excellent, committed leadership. 

The firefighters were a bit disheartened, but I believe they left feeling they got a fair hearing from the board and most of the community. There is no gloating or complaining to be done here; there should be some comfort in knowing the process worked, our voices were heard, and our elected leaders did their job with intelligence, honesty, and fairness. I hope we take that forward with us as we steam full speed ahead into the next hurricane of rate increases and ambulance taxes.

UPDATE

Shortly after the decision was made to withdraw the grant application, the Cambria Fire Department was notified that their application had been approved and the grant awarded. They had to decline.

 Pat Carberry spent his professional life leading different functions with grace, wit and compassion. Pat was also a hard-nosed businessman when necessary. He served in Vietnam as an Army Green Beret, but rarely spoke about his service. Pat was famous for the “Letters From God” that he’d read at the retirement parties of fellow PB’ers. When it came time for him to retire, he took a very different approach. He spoke quietly, and shared, ‘I’ve seen the horrific things human beings have done to each other.” A pause, then he looked at each one of us and said “Love one another.’

Fire On The Hill

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Fire interrupted the May night, bringing the residents of a quietly beautiful neighborhood out to the street, fearful and perhaps momentarily confused by what they were seeing. A house, no, a home was glowing and snarling with the fury of a thousand nightmares. A neighbor, injured and in pain, seeks help as her home is consumed by a disaster. All of this drama unfolds in a community that stands some distance apart from the towns that would come to help in times of crisis.

All times taken from the official Incident Report. 
Tuesday, May 29, 2018.
Incident Number: 18-CASLU 005543
Incident Name: PINEWOOD
Event Number: 18007179

It Begins

1:28:56 AM – With a keystroke, an emergency operator connects to an incoming caller, urgently reporting a fire in the Pine Knolls area of Cambria. The operator, well-trained and alert, takes in the information that sets an incident response in motion. 

05/29/2018 1:30:08 ROOF ON FIRE, CAN SEE IT FROM HER HOME, SOMEONE YELLING FOR HELP - from dispatch report

1:30: 28 AM– Based on the caller’s input, the operator executes the dispatch protocol, and the Emergency Services response begins.

On Duty
Cambria Fire Department’s “A” shift was on duty, halfway through a 48-hour shift. The team, under the command of CFD Captain Emily Torlano, is made up of Engineer Michael Burkey, SAFER Firefighter Ian Poelman, and Reserve Firefighter Tim Murdoch.

Their primary response unit, Engine 5792 was parked in the bay, ready to go. Additional response units include an older, backup engine, and a water tender which is a critical unit in areas where water is not always readily available.  An emergency response vehicle, carrying the tools and technology needed to support the often dangerous response and rescue operations sits ready.

1:32:28 AM – Dispatch

Firefighter Ian Poelman walks through his response to the call.

“We had returned to the station from a callout about an hour earlier. I was in my assigned room, resting. We were in the middle of our 48 hour shift, so you grab what sleep you can. I heard the bells coming through the speaker in the room. The dispatcher’s tone was slightly more urgent than usual, and his report of a structure fire with potential injury told me this was a serious incident. The team responded immediately, falling into the process we have learned. Dress and go. As we took our places on the engine, I went through my mental checklist of all the steps we would take during the response.”

1:33:53 AM – Engine en route

“Our mobile GPS was launched.  Maps popped up with a location and route. The incident response binder showed us the locations of nearby hydrants. Captain Torlano went through her routine, devising an initial plan based on the information she had. We train for these events, so a lot of the steps we take are familiar. But you don’t know everything until you get to the scene.”

1:40:56 AM – On Scene

As the ranking officer first on the scene, Captain Torlano became the Incident Commander. The responsibility for directing the response and managing the assignments for all the crews that would eventually join the fight was hers. The Captain describes the scene and her decision-making process.

“I was the incident commander. I did my walk around, sized up the situation, and eliminated rescue. There was an injured resident who was being treated by a neighbor, who is a nurse. I released the patient to the ambulance crew that had arrived on scene.”

1:42:52 AM – Cambria Healthcare District Ambulance on scene
1:43:58 AM – Patient Contact
1:53:10 AM – Patient Transport

Torlano continues. “Neighbors were yelling at us in distress as fire consumed the house and threatened their homes and the other precious exposures – the forest.   After completing my walk around and reporting to dispatch we still don’t have water on the fire.”

Firefighter Poelman describes what the team was doing as Captain Torlano made her assessment.

“We located the nearest hydrant, and Firefighter Murdoch executed his assignment. He grabbed the hydrant bag from the back of the engine and began unreeling the 4” line that would deliver water from the hydrant to the engine. He wrapped it around the hydrant and secured it. The truck then moved forward towards the fire, neatly spooling out the line. Murdoch went through the process of readying the hydrant. Clear any obstructions around the hydrant. Remove the hydrant cap. Open the valve and flush out any debris. Close the valve. Connect and secure the hose to the hydrant. Reopen the valve when the engine was connected at the other end.

Captain Torlano adds, “My firefighter at the hydrant is the one in-town reserve. He is like a Jedi – extremely knowledgeable and methodical. I am grateful he was there.”

The 4” line is connected to the water source. It is now Engineer Michael Burkey’s turn.

Engineer

As the Engineer on the crew, Michael Burkey’s responsibilities are critical and time-sensitive. He shares his view of the response.

“We knew the call was serious, because the tones kept sounding, indicating a significant event requiring a significant response. As I drove the engine towards the fire, I recalled that I had been on this very street hours earlier responding to a medical assist call. We approached the intersection and got a good look at the fire that was cutting through the light fog and lighting up the night sky.  Priority one was locating the hydrant, and positioning the engine where the supply line and tools could be deployed quickly and safely. Once that was done, I drove the engine towards the fire, stopping just forward of the house. This gave us the best view of the scene and more importantly allowed us to lay out our lines cleanly without unnecessary obstacles. I secured the engine, chocking the wheels front and back. Then, I disconnected the end of the main supply line from its mooring and reattached it to the engine pump. I signalled Tim Murdoch that we were ready to receive water.”

 We all finish getting our scba’s on to protect our airways, and I notice there is still no water on the fire… the neighbors are getting anxious as am I… I see hands raised, yelling, fists- I have no more bodies…Captain Torlano

Let it flow

Connections are now complete, and Engineer Berkey has the engine’s pumping system charged, balanced and ready to go. The Incident Commander instructs Burkey and  Poelman to pull the 2.5” diameter hose and begin attacking the fire. This particular hose has the capability of putting out 500 gallons a minute at high velocity. It is usually managed by two people, but there was nobody else available at that moment. Poelman deployed what is called a “hotel coil” where the nozzle is fed under the coiled hose, and then the operator kneels on it to help control the powerful stream of water. Firefighter Poelman is, as some might describe, a strapping young man. Even so, the level of physical strength needed to manage this task is not trivial.

 “Ian is now our hero as he douses massive amounts of water on the fire. But the cooling does not squelch the flames as I had hoped…” Captain Torlano reports.

Situational Awareness

Poelman realized that he was not getting the best angle on the fire, so he repositioned himself closer to the flaming front of the house and re-engaged. He shares, “We’re trained to maintain situational awareness, and not to get tunnel vision. It can be hard to not lock in on what is in front of you, with flames jumping out, wood popping and cracking, smoke and steam just feet away. Was it hot? Well, I could feel the heat a bit through my boots, and behind my mask.”

1:35:03 AM Cal Fire en route
1:42:01 AM Cal Fire on scene

Firefighters from Cal Fire Station 10 have arrived on the scene, geared up and are given their assignments.

The fire was blowing out the windows at the back of the house. The Cal Fire crew quickly attached one of the 1.75″ hoses to the CFD engine and went down the side of the house to gain access to the rear of the building. They trained their hose on the fire, sandwiching the blaze between themselves and Poelman, who was still engaging from the front.

Engineer Burkey now has two active lines plus the intake hose to manage. Each line has different pressure levels that need to be tightly monitored. Burkey focuses on the controls, adjusting them as needed to ensure the firefighters always have the right amount of water pressure to do the job.

“I knew the Cal Fire team was putting water on the fire when I saw steam rise over the roof where their attack met the flames,” Poelman recounts.  

Captain Torlano adds, “They saved the two houses next door. All of this felt like hours, but it was really maybe 10 minutes.”

Teamwork

The two engines worked in synchronicity and contained the fire safely from the exterior. When the fire volume had been contained enough, Captain Torlano ordered Poelman and Murdoch to take up the second 1.75″ hose and enter the house from the front to continue the fight. The two men quickly connected the hose and did a “buddy check” to make sure they had all their gear securely in place and ready to go. With everything ready, they entered, as the Cal Fire crew continued their efforts from the rear of the house.

As they entered, they were met with a combination of heated smoke, steam, and pockets of flame. They poured water on the fire, advancing steadily into the house, turning right towards the kitchen, where it seems the fire originated. They trained the hose on the ceiling over the stove, where flickering flames still grabbed for something to burn.

Moving

With the flames extinguished, they heard the Incident Commander asking if they could find an entry into the adjacent garage, where the fire was still active. Smoke and steam made it difficult to see much, even as the two men got down close to the floor where the air was less dense. With no clear path to the garage, they were ordered to back out and see if they could gain access from the front of the garage. Unable to raise the locked door, they proceeded down the side of the structure, meeting up with the Cal Fire crew who located an exterior door that led to the garage. Upon entry, they were able to find and release the overhead latch, manually lift the door and enable the garage space to vent.

The interior crew did a primary search, confirming there was nobody else inside the house. They faced, as described by Captain Torlano, “a severely destroyed house, with huge amounts of damaged structural members, tangled wires; essentially a very fragile shell.”

They brought out a photo album with burnt but salvageable photos and about 5 items of clothing… grasping to save something…” Capt. Emily Torlano

Support

As the incident progressed, more help arrived from the surrounding communities under the Mutual Aid agreements.

01:30:27 AM - Cal Fire Battalion Chief Dispatched
01:36:05 AM - en route
01:54:01 AM - on scene

Second engine requested by Cal Fire

01:52:34 AM – Cal Fire Headquarters Engine Dispatched
01:59:00 AM –Engine en route
2:20: 40 AM – Engine on scene

  Cayucos

1:30:27 AM – Cayucos Fire Dispatched
1:52:35 AM – Cayucos reports unable to find an operator 
for engine

 and Morro Bay

01:30:27 AM – Morro Bay Fire dispatched
01:34:56 AM – en route
02:01:24 AM – on scene

And from over the hill

01:30:28 AM – Templeton Fire Dispatched
01:36:37 AM - en route 
02:09:20 AM - on scene

 Logistics

As the response continued, Captain Torlano dealt with real-time issues. The neighborhood sits near the top of a fairly steep hill, making it challenging for responding engines and support vehicles to get close to the fire. The street itself is one of the wider and well-maintained roads, but it quickly became tough to manage the logistics of each responding agency. The Morro Bay truck and crew had to park a distance away, then grab their tools and gear and walk the rest of the way to the scene. This added minutes to their response. When they got to the fire, they were assigned to work with the CFD team on the interior of the building. Ian Poelman describes the combined efforts. “We continued to search out any pockets of fire that might still be burning. We used our tools to punch holes in the ceilings and the drywall, where fires can smolder undetected for some time. Tiring work but that is what we train for – mentally and physically.” The team ended up crawling through the attic – not the safest task, but critical in ensuring that the fire didn’t reappear later.

Just Breathe

Meanwhile, the response team from Templeton provided a critical piece of equipment that allowed the firefighters to continue working safely. Their emergency vehicle carries what is called “breathing support” – a system that refills the air bottles that the responders use to breath as they do their work. These bottles supply about 30 minutes of air and begin beeping as the remaining supply reaches a critical level. With this tone, the firefighters must withdraw and replace their air supply. The Templeton refill system allows for continuous and rapid resupply, keeping the firefighters in the game.

Keeping watch 

Even with this support, the firefighters are under significant physical duress and have to take breaks to hydrate, rest and be checked by a teammate to make sure they aren’t injured or otherwise unable to continue on the fire. This taxes resources and is an ever-present concern for all responders.

Winding Down

The response continued on for several hours. Constant check-ins revealed all personnel accounted for, and resources were released as they completed their assignments. As 4 AM approached, most responders were on their way back to their stations.

The Cambria Fire Department team remained on scene to continue cleanup and to monitor for potential flare-ups. Cambria Fire also deployed their water tender, which could quickly provide support if needed.

11:34:30 AM – Cambria Water Tender released.

Time from the first contact to final scene departure – 10 hours, 6 minutes.

Back Home

The fire was out, but the work continued for “A” shift. Far from taking a break, the crew went into the next phase of their job – clean up and inspection.

During a fire, a whole host of substances fly everywhere, covering equipment, tools, protective gear, clothes, skin and everything in between. Before leaving the scene, the crew strips off all their gear and bags it, with the goal of keeping as many contaminants out of the truck as possible. Back at the firehouse, that gear goes to the laundry room – a simple term to describe a complex process of decontamination. Every piece of gear is cleaned and checked before being put away. Each hose is unfolded, inspected for damage, pressure cleaned and put back into proper position. The engine is washed, the interior scrubbed with decontamination solutions. 

Preventive Measures

The firefighters must then shower to remove any grime and potentially harmful particles that may have found them during the incident. They must also, within 24 hours do one hour of strenuous, sweat-making exercise to help sweat out any potential carcinogens or other harmful matter. Another shower, then, if the shift has ended, they can relax. Or, if the shift continues, stay ready for the next call.

Coda

For Captain Torlano, the shift continued for another day. During that shift, her team was called for an emergency cardiac distress medical response. Captain Torlano, who is also a fully certified Paramedic, found herself cardioverting the patient – (shocking the heart out of lethal rhythm) and her SAFER firefighter, who is also a paramedic, began an IV. An ambulance arrived and transported the patient to the hospital, with the firefighter riding along to continue assisting.

And on it goes, day to day, shift to shift. 

“Catching the 1”

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Music has always been a big part of my life. I’ve spent large blocks of time engaged in the art, as a player, a composer, collaborator and always an appreciative consumer. It touches me all the time and is one of the biggest influences on my emotional health.
As a much younger person, I would occasionally do work around music, including a stint as a sound guy for a concert series at the Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden in North Salem, NY. The museum lives in a magnificent mansion that features a great room perfect for intimate events. The artists that perform in this beautiful house range from the exotic – visiting Japanese traditional musicians, dancers, and storytellers to Avant Garde musicians like composer David Amram. Two concerts stand out in my mind, and I think of them – and the lessons I took from them often.

Words…

The first mental memento features the songwriter, Bart Howard. He wrote a good number of “standards” that became staples of the cabaret/jazz/smoky hotel club scene. His most popular and successful composition can be heard on recordings by great saloon singers including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and by equally gifted singers from different genres, each interpreting the piece in their unique style. The song’s original title was “In Other Words.” It was soon changed to its more recognizable title “Fly Me to The Moon.” Sure, I’ll wait while you sing a few bars…
What sticks in my mind is not so much the song, but the story Bart Howard told. Even more than that, the way he performed it that afternoon. He was getting up there in age, and his voice, soft and polite, was at best passable; he hit the notes but struggled to hold them. He played the piano with elegance and wistful phrasing that painted a whole new picture. It was mesmerizing to hear that familiar love song shared by the person who wrote it, with the inflections and emphasis in places other singers missed. It was genuine, it was real, and it was pure art. I had a brief opportunity to chat with Mr. Howard after the show, and he was as kind, intelligent and engaging as his songs.
My lesson learned – anyone can interpret your words, thoughts, and ideas, but nobody can give it the same true meaning as the original.

Nat King Cole sings the standard, similar in style to Mr. Howard’s rendition.

…and Music

The second concert featured a name that most will recognize, spread across generations. Legendary composer/pianist Dave Brubeck passed along his gifts to his children, including sons Chris and Daniel, who performed their unique blend of sounds in a trio with brilliant jazz pianist Andy LaVerne. The musicianship was stunning, and what took it up a notch was the conversation with the audience, as Chris talked about the music, the inspiration and the unholy alliance of art and science, precision and free-form creativity. During one extended piece, each musician took a turn, soloing around and through the song structure. After a while I lost all count of the time, it was almost irrelevant. Then, as Daniel floated through an incredibly complex drum solo, BOOM – they all came together as one unit and took the tune to the end. After the applause died down, Chris spoke about what had transpired. He described the synchronicity as “catching the one” – meaning that through all the free flight of jazz improvisation, they all could come together on the downbeat – they all found the “1.”
Oh yeah, Dave Brubeck also sat in with his sons that afternoon.

Clip of the Brubeck Laverne Trio from the 1980’s

This lesson comes in handy in more than just musical situations. I look at it as a good reminder that every conversation, every issue, and every complex problem can take on a  fractal pattern, leaving an often morose Michael trying to remember what he was thinking about. Oh yeah – Measure A-18!

I’ve decided to vote in favor of Measure A-18. Coming to this decision was a surprisingly involved and at times confusing process that took me to all corners of the community.

Fairness

There are legitimate reasons to not like this measure. The tax itself is not, in my view, very fair. Parcel owners will be asked to pay the same amount of additional tax, whether their parcel is empty or full of house. Parcel owners who have little chance of building on their property will be asked to pay for something they may never get to enjoy. People who have multiple parcels will be taxed on each parcel. Parcel owners who do not live in Cambria will have no vote. People who live here and are registered to vote will have the power of the ballot, regardless of property ownership.
This issue, more than any other, held me back from a decision. In the end, I concluded that there might be different ways to split the tax baby, but there is no magic formula that will make everyone happy and whole. As for the argument that renter/residents get to vote to tax others – well, we live in America, don’t have landed gentry anymore, and as citizens, we have the right to cast votes on issues that impact the community we choose to call home. More than that, we have an obligation to use our vote wisely, for the benefit of all as best we can.

It Adds Up

The next issue that held me back is also tax-related. $62.15 a year does not seem like a big deal. But it is $62.15 on top of already meaningful taxes and assessments property owners pay. Utility rates have risen, and additional rate increases are on the table for consideration. The Health District struggles to remain solvent, and they are discussing another tax initiative to go before the community. This cost must be viewed as a part of a broader challenge.
My thought here is simple; we have to make a decision on what is in front of us now, and accept that the other two potential levies are not formed and not immediate. This decision has a deadline of June 5th.

Need

The third issue that I struggled with was determining the real need for the staffing that this measure will fund. There have been very strong and very weak arguments made on this critical issue. I spent most of my time sorting through this one. People I know and respect oppose the measure, and people I know and respect support the measure. I decided to go back to basics, follow my usual process and dig into each bullet on the list, from both sides.

Process

As my journey progressed, I was able to get face time and phone time with multiple people involved in the Emergency Services business that protect Cambria and the surrounding region. I asked what I believe to be tough questions – my own and those raised by various community members. I looked at statistics, read reports and visited with both Cambria Fire and Cal Fire. I spoke with CCSD staff and several elected Directors. I engaged in a detailed back and forth via email. To ensure I was as fair and unbiased as I reasonably could be, I asked a trusted friend to review (with permission) my discussions with the involved parties. I challenged the agencies, and suggested areas for improvement in their communications. They argued their points, adjusted their thinking, and built better arguments. Their initial efforts were not strongly formed or articulated, making their battle tougher than it needed to be.

Fair or Not?

The back and forth led to a few realizations. First, why has it been left to the line troops to fight this battle? It seems unfair. Secondly, they are firefighters, not politicians or lobbyists, yet they are acting in those capacities and taking the shots that come along with those roles.
In spite of all that, they continued with their efforts. The arguments improved. Communications were polished. They actively engaged and listened, responded with reasoned, fact-based information, and maintained their composure and their dignity.

Live and Local

Finally, the second community town hall convinced me that the firefighters’ positions are valid, the needs they have are legitimate, and the support they have received from other agencies, specifically, Cal Fire remains strong.

Beyond the Bullets

The speakers focused on the relevant theme – time and resources. They did a good job of taking the discussion beyond the top-level bullet points and drilled deeper into how the staffing model impacts not just fire response but all the other tasks and duties they perform. They provided real statistics on the decline of the “volunteer” force in Cambria and across the country. They defined – finally – what a volunteer is, and what is required of them to be eligible to serve in that capacity. They cited the law that made extensive training and certification mandatory. A point that they underplayed, but which caught my attention, was the overall effect of losing the three existing firefighter positions. It is an important point that becomes clearer when put into the context of what Cambria Fire and Emergency Services across the country face.

Quick Math

The current reality is that CFD engine is generally staffed with a captain/paramedic, an engineer, a firefighter and a reservist (the equivalent of a paid volunteer.) The reservist pool is pretty shallow, with two in-town qualified and trained people who may or may not be available to respond or pull shifts. With out-of-town reservists, that pool expands to 9 people, who may or may not be available when needed. So,if you subtract the third professional firefighter, then add the uncertainty of reservist availability, it is possible that the engine response team could be just two people. A likely scenario – no. A possible scenario – certainly.

And So…

The community members who attended were engaged, perhaps under-informed, but interested in hearing the arguments from all sides. I thought about the anger over the “fear tactics” being used to influence the community. At the end of the night, I sensed that given the realities of our environment, maybe a little fear is warranted. As I listened to the presenters and the attendees, I went through my list of questions, objections, and arguments and asked myself – were they addressed and answered successfully? For me, an overwhelming number of them were.

So I finally, after a lot of work, the issues came together and resolved in my mind. I “caught the 1.”

And now on to the next exciting movement. Maybe something in a waltz.

No Tomatoes? No Problem!

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Community
Friday – the end of the work week. (Who am I kidding – I don’t have a real work week!) Friday means Farmer’s Market, and a chance to see people from across the community as CFM-Logo-PNG-Fullwell as people visiting our beautiful town. The fruits and vegetables are fresh and healthy (or so I’ve been told by those who enjoy such things), and the line for freshly baked bread and other pastryorial goodies testifies to the enduring popularity of flour-based solutions. I have learned to look for the baguettes with the best ears. I know – “don’t get too technical, bread boy!”
I enjoy Farmer’s Market for a whole lot of reasons, but mostly for the opportunities to chat with friends, acquaintances and strangers who weave through the market stands manned and womanned by a constant and comforting group of regulars. Today was only slightly different, as I was let loose, unaccompanied by my awesomely patient wife. I’m a chatty guy on a good day, and today was a great day!

Start Here
As I entered the Market grounds I said a quick hello the to the regular greeter, a man of faith who takes up his post every week, pamphlets at the ready but never forced into the hands or minds of the produce-seekers. For some reason he was leashed to a small dog today; probably keeping watch on the little angel as its owner observed the “no dogs allowed” rule which, while a bit unpopular to some makes good sense for the overall experience. A quick nod and smile, then a steely resolve as I barrel past the scented temptress known by its legendary name of “Kettle Corn.” I think it’s Egyptian, or maybe Aztec. Korean? Not sure, but it is a pure temptation. I usually resist, but when my granddaughter Chloe visits, we stop. She is young and knows not what she does. Well actually (as she now says in her nearly four-year-old rational voice) she knows exactly what she does closing her pitch with “and we will bring some home to mommy!” But today, I am on my own, so keep your scented kettle on your side of the parking lot, thank you very much.
A quick turn to the right, just past the beautiful flowers on the first table, I see Harry. After a rough start, we have developed a cordial relationship, and I enjoy chatting about whatever happens to be going on around us. I mentioned that for someone who doesn’t do a lot of social media his picture sure appears frequently on my Facebook feed. He is, as he sheepishly acknowledges, a bit of a local celebrity. He shared a quick anecdote about being introduced to a visitor as a local rock star! And he kind of is – engaged in civic and social activities, friend and acquaintance to many. He makes the rounds, his basket slowly filling with his coming week’s menu. A quick chat, a quick check on health and off we go our separate ways.

Bread, No Circus
I quickly slide in line at the baker’s table, nervously counting the remaining baguettes in the tin bucket. Two left, one person in front of me, looking like she is wrapping up her transaction. Good, my odds are good. I scored a lovely loaf, well-eared and so freaking fragrant I had to wipe my joyful tears away as I ransacked my pocket for a case quarter to happily hand over with my bill, getting the paper change that would be applied at my next stop.
A quick diagonal takes me to Bautista’s, where I exchange quips with the friendly and hard-working young woman who never fails to say “I like your haircut” – to which I reply “and yours looks fabulous” – even when neither of us has seen a salon in a while. I must say, I enjoy these exchanges especially when her partner in produce – an older woman who is all business (her mother, perhaps?)gives a quick glance and almost smiles. One day, she will crack and say something more than “$2.00” as she hands me my carrots. Some day…

Uh Oh…
I instinctively took a step to my left, only to notice something was terribly wrong. The tomato guy was not there! Let me repeat that – no tomato guy! My silent scream was felt, I’m sure, as far away as Pineridge, where a lanky, thoughtful man in a white Corvette froze for a second as the phrase “he only came for tomatoes” somehow filled the space around his consciousness. But that was a different blog…

Friendly Faces
My dark mood quickly lightened as I saw her – my across the street neighbor Marian. She is a striking woman with a quick wit and pale blue eyes that convey a real interest in what is being discussed. We talk often but never enough. She didn’t seem to notice the absence of the tomato guy; perhaps her years as an attorney has given her the practiced inscrutability of a judge. Perhaps she just doesn’t like tomatoes – I do not know. Either way, it was great to see her. We were soon joined by Marie, who I’ve seen more over the past weeks than I had over the past year. The two women knew each other casually, so the conversation flowed easily. Then, as if my luck hadn’t been good enough up to that point, we were joined by the ebullient Kathe Tanner, ace reporter, noted gastronome, and the only person in California outside my immediate family who knows about Dom and Vinnie’s pizza. (The one off the Sprain Brook Parkway, up the street from Gate of Heaven Cemetery. A cemetery which had the greatest sign ever – “Archdiocese of New York ~ Gate of Heaven Cemetery ~- Gates close at 4:30pm.”)

News with Heart
We talked a bit about the changes in the local paper, and Kathe shared her hope to keep telling the stories that really reflect not only the news of the town but the heart of the townspeople. Kathe has a wonderfully warm way of storytelling, and her words really touch readers as witnessed by the comments that often follow her pieces. We parted on the question “how long do you have to live in Cambria to be considered a local?” I may have to go to the Cambria Historical Society to dig up that answer!

Good Lord!
Our cluster broke apart as we headed to our next stops. I stopped a bit short of mine as I saw what seemed to be a tableau from Game of Thrones. Princess Stephanie of Soups was on one knee in front of the corner stand, the dynastic Dragon Spring Farm. A second look revealed that she was actually taking a picture of the signs on the front of the table, and not, as I first thought, bending the knee to the Mother of Dragon Spring nor the Lord of Lemons, the wonderful Carol and Mike Broadhurst. Mike took the opportunity to regale us all with his critically acclaimed solo from the Cambria Chorale’s seasonal concert. That was four bars that will live in infamy! Though I missed the concert, I had gotten a report about Carol’s frolicking frock and snazzy shoes, which, when I mentioned them had Carol beaming at the memory. I’m pretty sure she did a little joyful two-step, narrowly avoiding grandson Braden as he toddled in behind her on his way to grabbing some blocks from the bin under the tables.

Sighted Sounds
Continuing on around the bend, I scanned the various offerings, quickly making and then breaking eye contact with the peanut brittle guy, who had started his “sample?” spiel but recognized me as a guy who has never said yes in the five years plus I’ve attended the market. As I drew closer to the end of the row of vendors, two things touched my senses at the same time. First, a few clouds had me thinking I had to pick up the pace, as I was burning daylight. Then, an encroaching aroma told me Linn’s was burning brisket, Thirdly, my ears alerted me that someone or something was burning through some standards. I looked up and saw a bevy of brass – the place was lousy with trombones! Now, the trombonists were not lousy at all – they were actually (as Chloe would say) really really good! I slid (see what I did there, Allison?) up to where the band was holding forth… because there were four of them. Otherwise, they would be holding thirds or fifths…(I did it again, Allison!)
Seated at the picnic table in front of the musicians was the delightful Ruth Fleming; singer, painter and all around joy to hang out with. Her husband was one of the troubadours, so I guess she had to be there… I kid, I kid! We got to catch up a bit and exchange terrible puns as we enjoyed the music. Ruth makes me smile and is one of the lights that make Cambria so interesting.

Exit Stage Left
By now I worried my absence would be noticed at home, so I wrapped it up and headed for the exit. On the way out, an SUV was pulling into the parking lot, probably a bit faster than conditions called for. I stopped quickly and looked across the driveway as a young paramedic from the ambulance corps was entering the grounds. We both looked at the SUV, and I said: “if he had run me over you were there to save me.” He replied, wise beyond his years, “better for both of us that he didn’t.” Whoa, heavy!

Another Facet In The Jewel
I safely crossed the street, got into the car and headed home, but not before making a stop at Cambria Coffee Roasters. I really like going there for a few reasons, which even on occasion involves coffee. The appeal of the place is two-fold. First, they carry a particular kind of sweet that I love – they call it a raspberry shortbread cookie, but to me, it will always be a Linzer Torte. Now hold on a second, all my Bronx people. It is not Webers-quality. It does not have that coma-inducing blend of light and buttery shortbread, fresh raspberry preserves and powdered sugar that makes one sing and sneeze at the same time. It is more of a mass-produced, but still tasty rendition that goes great with afternoon coffee.

These Kids Today
The bigger reason I enjoy the place is the cast and crew that staff the counter and the coffeemakers every day. It is one place in town where the younger generation is front and ce67coffee6nter on Main Street. I can truly say that every person that I have met there has been a delight to interact with and learn about. They each have a story, a dream, and an approach to life that I find encouraging. They come from different places – some are local, some are just stopping for a rest. They carry yesterday’s adventures and experiences from across the globe and harbor a determination to enter more in their life’s notebook. They may stay for a short while, or enjoy longer tenures. Some go away and come back. But each of them brings a vitality to the place. They show grace and patience as they deal with the palette of people who cram themselves into the small space, some demanding, some odd, and some who range from quirky to curmudgeonly. Shannon, Gwynn, Jesse and Robin. Ariel and the recently departed Cecily. A couple of Courtney’s and Baylee, off to college. Cameron and her sister Zoe, whose dad first helped my wife and me find a place in Cambria. Probably a bunch I have forgotten. Probably a bunch still to meet. They are all happily different and represent to me an entirely unique slice of this community. And they all know that my two-cookie order is called the “Shannon Special,” and that I enjoy a good chat.
They serve me anyway!

Telling Stories

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I was driving through town on a beautiful Monday morning, listening to the Bruce Springsteen channel on satellite radio. Youngstown, Bruce’s devastatingly accurate and stark telling of the rise and fall of the titular city, was playing. The version was from his haunting 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, which was more of a folk/Americana record than a raucous and defiant rock barn burner.  Youngstown is Steinbeck with guitars and fiddles, even more so than the title track.

Youngstown – Original Version

As I listened, I made a mental leap to a very different telling of the same story – the version of Youngstown that appears on the Live From New York City DVD that was filmed for broadcast on HBO in 2000. Where the original has soft, insistent acoustic guitars and steady, almost shuffling accompaniment, the live version features the E Street Band at the apex of its incredible power. Where the original spools the story with melancholy and resignation, the live version spews it with a rage and denial.

In the first telling, I see a townsman sitting at the counter of the diner, both hands wrapped around the coffee cup gone cold as he tells the tale, flannel shirt over a worn t-shirt, old but still respectable jeans and work boots speaking a plain and honorable truth.

The second version reveals the same guy five years later, now seated at the dark end of the bar, hand squeezing the last drops of beer gone warm out of the brown bottle that will soon join a few too many in the bus box under the bar. Not so melancholy, not so quiet, telling anyone who wants to, or doesn’t want to hear how things were, and how things are. Rage, despair, puzzlement, and pleading done in a voice too loud, too challenging, and too painfully true. Where the original took us out with a sad and ominous violin melody, the live version exploded into the chaos and near mania of Nils Lofgren’s jaw-dropping guitar work. He grabs a beautiful melody and quickly hurls it away, replacing it with quick modal shifts and a machine-gun of notes. Each phrase sent speeding to the end of energy, and finally, exhausted, a repeating question mark of  “what has happened to my world?”

Youngstown – Live in NYC

Same words, same chords, same artist. Same story, different voices.

Local Accents

We often tell our stories based on what we want the outcome to be, and we use different voices to win the day. We do so with all the usual platitudes, like “it isn’t personal” knowing that for some it is very personal. Cambria, like many vibrant communities, is rich with stories. We are never at a loss for debates and decisions. A single simple issue rarely remains single or simple. Depending on who is telling and who is listening, and who is retelling their own version. Discuss sometimes turn to disgust. Some engage thoughtfully and positively. Others sit hawk-like on the overhead power lines, waiting for something to be turned into a meal.

Here’s One

Fire season no longer a predictable thing. Catastrophic fires and related events have been devastating large swaths of California and straining resources in every part of the state. Cambrians are being asked to fund three firefighter positions through a parcel tax. Voters will need to decide this issue and deserve to hear all sides of the equation. Here are a few duets from the greatest hits collection:

 

airquoteGOALS

 “Our goal is to continue to provide the best level of professional emergency services to the community we serve and meet the standards and objectives of fire service organizations across the country.”

“Their goal is to build an empire, take over all the emergency services, and keep the employees fat with overtime, outrageous pension benefits, and keep the union flush with dues.”

NEED 

“Cal Fire has a station in Cambria, and they respond to every call.”

“Cal Fire responds to every call when they are in the area and available, which is not always the case.”

“We get mutual aid responses from all the surrounding fire departments.”

 “Mutual aid agreements are critical to the safety of Cambria and the surrounding communities, though response times can vary and every minute is critical.”

COST

“Our goal is to create enough revenue to sustain these positions for the foreseeable future, and the tax model was built to meet that objective. Here, look at the calculations. “

“The sales pitch is built on misleading data – it is going to cost way more than they are saying – here, look at this chart!!!”

FEAR

“Their goal is to instill fear for the safety of our older citizens!!”

“Their goal is to instill economic fear and doubt among our older citizens!!”

“BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID!!!”

OR…

Go to a meeting. Read some of the information provided by all interested parties. Think about what you can afford – afford to spend, and afford to lose. What level of risk is acceptable to you? What is won or lost with a yes or no vote? Check your gut, check your heart, check your wallet and check your moral compass. There are a lot of very smart, informed and interested people who can give us the data we seek, the detail we want, and the simple facts absent spin or partisan positioning. Facts are great.  Facts delivered with conclusions attached may be less clean, but if you trust the story-teller, well that counts for something. At the end of the day, it will be you and your #2 pencil (or more likely some sort of sharpie) hovering over the ballot. You and your vote matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clarity?

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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”

RECAP

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.

Moving Forward

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.”

SO?

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…

Staffing 

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…

Brotherhood

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.

http://calfireweb.fire.ca.gov/library/handbooks/8500/8554.pdf

GUIDELINES 8554.3

(No. 137 May 2017)

  1. When considering potential Amador Plan cooperative fire protection agreements under PRC §4144, the following guidelines will be used:
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Cal Fire Station 10 website

Cambria Fire website

SAFER

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SAFER

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.

Lights Up

ZanchiDiogenes

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:

CFDThe 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?

THE CREW

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.

THE CHIEF

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.

CFDstationThe 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

REASONS

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.

Cambria Firefighter

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.

Mutual Aid

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.

Volunteers

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.

Reservists

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?

CalFireSignOne 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.

Now What?

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…

Safe

Safe – Part II

Safe – Part II

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As part of my journey to better understand the different factors that have gone into the upcoming ballot measure, I reached out to the CCSD General Manager with questions around some of the things I’ve heard from different parts of the interested community.

One of the primary issues relates to taxation approach to funding the firefighter positions.  I took a few questions (formed from reading and hearing thoughts from vocal community members) and posed them to the GM.  He directed me to Legal Counsel for specific details.  I submitted my questions in an email and received the following response from David Hirsch, an attorney who works with District Counsel Tim Carmel.  Mr. Hirsch’s answers are BOLDED.

 Parcel Tax – Legal Edition

The questions I posed fell into two buckets.

Bucket A: Parcel Tax

  • Why was the method of seeking revenue through parcel taxes done the way it has been done?
  • What law, statute or other governing rules make this approach legal and compliant?
  • Why would this issue not be addressed through different means, such as a 218?

Mr. Hirsch responded (some editing for brevity)

“The answer to your questions, in large measure, is that the special tax is something that is expressly authorized by and consistent with the requirements of Proposition 218.  Proposition 218 was a voter approval protection initiative that added provisions to the California Constitution.  It created a requirement that special taxes, such as the CCSD’s parcel tax measure that will be on the June ballot, are subject to a supermajority vote that requires two-thirds voter approval.   A provision in the statutes that govern community services districts, Government Code Section 61121, expressly authorizes the CCSD to levy special taxes.” 

He continues, ” Proposition 218 also addresses and creates procedural requirements and restrictions on other forms of local agency revenues, such as fees and assessments.  Those types of revenues are not an appropriate source to fund the three-firefighter positions that the special tax will address.  Fees relate to services such as water or sewer and are restricted to the cost of providing those services. Assessments require that there be a special benefit to the assessed property. The higher level of staffing of fire response vehicles will provide a general benefit to the entire community and therefore cannot easily be funded through an assessment process.  Therefore, although it requires meeting the high threshold of a two-thirds vote of the electorate, the special tax was deemed the most appropriate way to provide the needed funding for the three-firefighter positions.”

This second section of questions is less rooted in law and more in the application.

 Bucket B: Fairness

  • There are many views on the “fairness” of taking a path that excluded many property owners being able to vote on the tax.  The ones that rise to the top of the list posit that all property owners should have the right to vote on issues that directly affect them, and will (if successful) impose costs on them.
  • Renters are given the opportunity to tax property owners.  Many rental properties have multiple tenants, which can dramatically up the number of votes per property.
  • Taxing those with higher equity in town (homes or other structures) the same as those with much less (vacant parcels).
  • Parcel owners who reside elsewhere receive no benefit but are burdened with the costs of the proposed tax.
  • Some citizens have mentioned that in the past they were mailed a ballot and could cast a vote on issues like this.  Is that not doable under the approach that has been taken?

“… You note that ‘There are many views on the “fairness’ of taking a path that excluded many property owners being able to vote on the tax.”  I can certainly appreciate your point; however, fundamentally the fairness question is a policy issue with regard to how the special tax was structured.  The previously noted Section of the Government Code that authorized seeking approval for the special tax also provides that “…The special taxes shall be applied uniformly to all taxpayers or all real property within the district, except that unimproved property may be taxed at a lower rate than improved property.”

“…the CCSD’s Board of Directors looked at options that included only taxing improved property.  They ended up deciding, within their sound discretion, to submit a measure to the voters that would assess a uniform amount on all parcels in the District.

“… certainly there are many examples that can be cited where taxes are deemed unfair to some but nonetheless are lawfully imposed.  You noted that renters are able to vote on taxes that their absentee, property owner landlords have to pay.  Other examples include transient occupancy taxes paid by folks staying at hotels that are voted upon by the communities residents and not those that are taxed.  Likewise, owners of vacation homes who reside elsewhere and are not registered voters in Cambria will not be able to vote on the tax, although they certainly will benefit from its passage.  Other examples of unfairness include Mello-Roos special taxes, which often are created by one landowner, a developer, but subsequently are paid by the future residents of the property, and school taxes paid by retirees with no children in the school system.  Unfortunately, often the nature of taxation is such that there is some element of unfairness, however, how the tax is structured is a policy question best left to the elected officials who must take responsibility for seeking its approval. “

” You also mentioned that some citizens have said that they were mailed a ballot and could cast a vote on issues like this and asked whether that could be done for the Cambria’s firefighters special tax measure.  Those folks may have been referring to an assessment district ballot process, which as noted, is not an appropriate mechanism to fund the three-firefighter positions.  Otherwise, if they were referring to a mailed ballot election, while there are procedures to have such elections (they are significantly more expensive), Cambria’s measure will be on the regular June 2018 ballot and voters will need to go to the polls to cast their vote or vote by absentee ballot.”

So, there we have it – a detailed response to a sampling of the comments and questions heard around town.  Perhaps this will provide clarity to some; maybe it will raise more questions from many.  Knowledge is power. The quest for accurate and honest information can feel like the hunt for the Golden Fleece. Accurate and honest answers can keep us from feeling like the fleeced.

In the next edition I sit down with CFD Chief William Hollingsworth to get a better sense of the true need for the proposed staffing levels.  I also visited Cal Fire Station 10 and had a brief conversation with the Captain on duty.

Safe Part I

 

Safe

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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…

Education

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.

Confused?

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.

Granted

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.

Advocates

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reports & Retorts Redux

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Click Here for Part I 

October

The unsuccessful attempt to fill the open director’s seat created a few question marks for the community.  Much was made of the chaotic process used in the September 19th special meeting.  Many Cambrians felt that process was poorly thought out and unfair to the candidates.  A lot of heat was directed towards board President Amanda Rice. As the keeper of the gavel, it was assumed that she would be the person responsible for defining the process and managing the execution.  While I agree she owns the hot seat, I’m not in the camp that sees the weakness of the attempt as solely her fault. Governing is a team sport.

President Rice, to her credit, reached out to members of the community to solicit ideas on how to do a better job with the next round scheduled for October 3rd. I don’t know how much helpful input she received, but it wasn’t quite enough to fix it all before the meeting.

Post 9/19, the community was buzzing with thoughts, suspicions, complaints and the odd call for revolution. Business as usual in this crazy, awesome town.  Candidates that had submitted themselves to the Circus Minimus that took place between the hills over the skate park and the hills over the Fiscalini Ranch had time to rethink their commitment to service.  Many decided to remain in the competition, despite not quite knowing the rules.

Let Us Try Again

I was unable to attend the October 3rd meeting but did manage to catch a portion of the proceedings via the Slo-span.org live feed, and later watched the whole session via the archived recording.

The community came out in force, with different candidates having groups of supporters rooting for their success. There were a lot of the usual attendees and an increased number of citizens who came to speak in support of Aaron Wharton. Aaron is a local business owner who decided that he wanted to contribute to the community that he and his family chose as their home. He bore a different profile from most other candidates. He had acquitted himself reasonably well in the original round of interviews and was one of the six chosen for the bonus round.

Support

To the surprise of some, multiple speakers rose to vocalize their support for Wharton’s candidacy. So many that those not in his camp began to voice suspicions that the whole thing was planned, perhaps in cahoots with one or two directors. The word “puppet” made its way into the conversation. It seemed that some of the regulars, who frequently pack the meeting and regularly speak about this and that couldn’t believe that another group of folks would take advantage of the public comment period to advocate their cause!

I’ve got no strings, so I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings, but you can see
There are no strings on me

Written by Dickie Jones and performed by Pinocchio

After public comment, the meeting turned to the business at hand – fill the seat. Here’s where the whole thing went sideways again. Since no meaningful progress had been made in structuring the selection process, the previous month’s chaos came back for an encore. It was unclear – would candidates have a chance to speak? Would there be more interview questions from the board? At some point, President Rice noted that in her view any member of the community could still submit themselves for consideration. Oh boy!

Suddenly there was a cavalcade of citizen activists marching to the podium to declare their candidacy.  It was like a mashup of Bullworth, The American President, Forrest Gump and Waiting For Guffman. Yes, those are four loosely associated films with tenuous plot ties strung together to make an inconsequential point.

But seriously…

Things settled down a bit though candidate DeWayne Lee, a strong contender for the seat, was unsure if he would have an opportunity to present himself again. It was assumed he would, so he deferred his public comment slot with the expectation that he would present later in the proceedings.

Aaron Wharton made his way to the podium for a second round of grilling.  He began by referring back to some of the answers he had given in the first round. He inartfully tried to clarify that his answer to the question on how many permits should be allowed wasn’t quite right, and it had been given as an effort to “tell them what they wanted to hear.”  Not the best or most thoughtfully constructed statement; it gave the impression that he was just appeasing a few directors.

It’s Gettin’ Hot In Here…

Director Farmer picked up the oven mitts, turned up the heat and started grilling Mr. Wharton.  It was clear that he was not a fan, and was using his time to aggressively challenge Wharton’s answers.  The exchange got a bit weird, with Farmer rejecting Wharton’s answers by interrupting him and repeating his questions in an even harsher tone.  Mr. Wharton, clearly bemused, asked Mr. Farmer “what do you want my answer to be?” – turning his earlier misstep into a humorous and de-escalating jibe.

After the cross-examination ended, Director Bahringer nominated Mr. Wharton.  (note: he had also nominated him during the seven rounds at the previous meeting.)  The nomination was quickly seconded by Vice President Sanders.  Director Farmer looked quite stunned by the quickness of the nomination process, and during discussion asked for clarification on whether he could abstain.  That took a few minutes, and then the intrepid clerk called the roll.

Director Bahringer – AYE. Vice President Sanders – AYE. Director Farmer (more clarifying discussion, then…) ABSTAIN.  President Rice – AYE.

Aaron Wharton, come on down and raise your hand!

It was me against the world, I was sure that I’d win, but the world fought back, punished me for my sins.

Mike Ness, Social Distortion

Standards

How do we view the job of an elected official?  Why do we choose one candidate over another?  Positions or personality?  Values or attitudes?  Comfortable or charismatic?  Familiar or mysterious?

After we make our choices, how do we expect our chosen few to execute their duties?  How long do we stick with them, or more accurately how soon do we abandon them?


A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream, and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”   The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”                       Replies the scorpion: “It’s my nature…”


  • I vote for a person with the expectation that they will do what I want them to do because they work for me.
  • I vote for a person because I believe they have the capacity and skill to make the best choices based on all the facts available, combined with their experience and discernible character traits.  I don’t expect to agree with or like every decision or position, but my vote is a sign of confidence in the person.

There is also the question of how an elected official views their responsibility once they assume office.

The proper view should always be “regardless of how many votes I garnered I am obligated to represent all the members of the community.”

What we sometimes see, however, is the view that “I represent the people who voted for me, and I will decide based on their wishes.”

Are We, We Are

During all this tumult it again became clear that Cambria is a community of many tribes. Some are very vocal, which can give the impression that their numbers are much larger than they are. Some, in their passionate zeal, ignore social norms and fall back on volume and venom to move their position forward. Some rely on quiet negotiation, using relationships and positive persuasion to advocate for their views. Some follow along, and some just ignore it all. When hard times hit, or someone needs a helping hand the community frequently drops the animus and acts with a level of unity that reminds me how great this town is. When it comes to the CCSD, and to a lesser extent the CCHD (Cambria’s Community Health District) that unity heads to Costco for a big box of “NOPE.”

Sightlines

Watching from afar and watching from the back of the room are two very different experiences.  Being “in the room where it happens” adds dimension to the experience.  You can see and hear the murmurs, sharp comments, snorts and quiet affirmations from the audience.  You can watch the body language of the crowd, see furious scribbling or iPad tapping, catch the fleeting smiles and nods as well as the darkening scowls and grimaces depending on what is being said from the dais or the speaker’s podium.  You can also catch the interaction between citizens as they comment to each other or, frequently about each other.

Occasionally, rude or disruptive outbursts or steady streams of angry chatter cause others to turn around, stare or comment, communicating the request for courtesy so everyone might hear the words of those who legitimately have the floor.  This general sense of courtesy and reasonable public behavior sadly falls apart when some citizens feel their right to “free speech” trumps the rights of others to focus on and listen to the rightfully recognized.

An Example

This story is not intended to be “gossipy,” but it is meant to shine a light on behaviors and attitudes that sometimes diminish the principle that everyone has the right to participate in the proceedings without harassment or undue disruption.

While getting feedback from people who attended the October 3rd meeting, a few  relayed an exchange that happened between two locals.  One, a noted activist and frequent disruptor, and the other a local business owner attending the meeting in support of a candidate.

As the proceedings went on, a group of folks stood in the back of the room, talking loudly and distractingly.  The business owner turned around and asked for them to quiet down so people could hear what proceedings.  The requestor was met with the following response. (stealing a masking tactic from the Megan Amram-scripted hit comedy series “The Good Place) “FORK OFF, BUB.”

Nice.

After the meeting ended, he approached the disruptor to express his dismay at being treated so rudely.  That earned a second “FORK OFF, BUB.”

Now, this type of truculence isn’t all that surprising, but I wanted to be sure what I was told was accurate.  I reached out to the recipient of this verbal assault, who after ascertaining that I wasn’t out to cause him grief, agreed to meet and fill in the blanks.  Those blanks included a third invitation to “FORK OFF.”

Still, I wanted to understand if there was more to the story, or perhaps gain an understanding of why the responder felt it was appropriate to behave in this fashion. I sent an email to the orator asking if the story was true and accurate and if there was more that could be shared that might provide a different perspective on the exchange. As of today, I’ve not gotten any response.

Next – The new guy takes a seat, just in time to do it all over again.