It’s not a three-alarm call, but something’s smoldering. And it needs attention, before it turns into something bigger.
After concluding that local fire agencies’ response times aren’t up to snuff, the 2007 Standards of Response Coverage — a 150-page tome penned by consultant William Kirchhoff — boldly states in summary that “… response times and availability of resources for emergencies are directly related to choices made by policymakers” (his emphasis).
He goes on: “… The related costs (of adequately responding to emergencies) will stay the same, increase or decrease depending on which way the coverage expectations are ratcheted by the elected officials.”
In other words: Firefighters are busting their backs to protect people and property, but if the powers that be accept a lower standard of service, taxpayers can keep more of their cash.
Those elected powers happen to be the Tracy City Council, which collects money for the Tracy Fire Department, and the Rural Tracy Fire Protection District board, which collects for areas outside the city. Each has two representatives on the South County Fire Authority board, which helps set the overall direction for the area’s fire services. (Mountain House contracts its fire protection to the authority.)
Soon, that south county board — consisting of Mayor Brent Ives, Councilwoman Suzanne Tucker, Peter Reece and James Thoming — will decide whether to relax response times, following the consultant’s suggestion.
The safe money’s on change. Current response standards just aren’t realistic, given the fire district’s size, the city’s street plan, the increase in demand and the resources allotted.
The number of calls for fire service has grown during the decade, according to Division Chief David Brammell, who estimates that the authority is now responsible for the safety of some 100,000 residents.
“With more people comes more calls, and if you have the same number of resources, it’s logical to assume that it will be a challenge to keep pace,” Brammell said Thursday.
The authority is actively looking for ways to improve without spending more cash, since you’re more likely to get orange juice from a rock than money from taxpayers in this economy.
“I feel like we’re doing as good as we can given the resources we have, but we do believe there are opportunities for improvement,” he said. “We’re interested in trying to operate as efficiently as possible ….”
According to the consultant’s analysis, 18 of 33 recommendations, including adjusting response-time standards, would cost no money while improving south-county fire service. But the report also makes it clear that strides in efficiency can only boost coverage so much.
No one’s suggesting an overnight solution, but at some point, money must be spent. Not bankrupt-the-city-like-Vallejo money, mind you. But money nonetheless.
Kirchhoff suggests increasing staff levels, relocating the Banta fire station and commissioning a study for up to two expansion fire houses, which doesn’t include the estimated three fire houses the city would need if the Ellis and Tracy Hills subdivisions are fully built.
Some measures over the past 10 years have helped, like moving Station 91 to 11th Street and increasing the number of firefight¬ers on duty within the city. But the authority is stretched to its limits. Chief Chris Bosch told the south county board on April 15 that response time rates will continue to deteriorate if nothing is done.
Firefighters can only do so much to stop fires and start hearts without the proper tools.
On the final page of the report review, in a section titled “The Bottom Line,” Kirchhoff warns that we have two options: “No. 1, modify the community risk tolerance so that fewer resources are needed, or; No. 2, proceed with the financial planning necessary to support the multiyear expansion and operational plan.”
In other words: If you want better fire protection, you’d better be ready to pay for it.
Contact columnist Jon Mendelson at 830-4231 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org