Templeton Fire Department gets chance for a new life

Agency will pursue a number of fixes before resorting to a different model for service

kleslie@thetribunenews.comJanuary 30, 2014 

The Templeton Fire Department fought more than fires Tuesday night.

Fire officials and several community representatives convinced the Templeton Community Services District Board of Directors that the 105-year-old department wasn’t dead in the water just yet.

Following a study that concluded the roughly 25-person Fire Department did not have enough staffing or money to safely serve the Templeton area on a long-term basis, the board of directors decided in December to hold a workshop to address possible alternatives and solutions.

Among the solutions was pursuing a contract with Cal Fire that would move County Engine No. 30 from Paso Robles to Templeton. The county engine would have a two-person staff supplied by Cal Fire, and cost between $660,000 and $730,000 a year.

Although the Fire Department’s paid-call firefighters would continue to respond to local incidents, the county engine would be the main response.

Several workshop attendees raised concerns that the board was jumping the gun by considering the Cal Fire contact, rather than focusing its efforts on bolstering the department’s declining force and finding more funds to supplement its $1.2 million budget.

“It isn’t that the model isn’t working,” Firefighters Association President Andrew Neeley said. “It’s that that current model cannot be sustained on a long-term basis.”

Neeley suggested several fixes to the department’s structure to improve response time and firefighter participation, key concerns in the fire service study. As paid-call firefighters, they set their own schedules and are compensated only when they respond to an incident.

Among the improvements might be scheduling shifts so they are easier to work into firefighters’ personal lives and adding extra compensation for firefighters working holidays or nights.

“We have 21 people who are ready to hit the floor (running), and with those ideas I think we can,” said Capt. Brandon Wall, who helped compile the solutions.

Other solutions discussed at the workshop included creating a consolidated fire service between the Templeton, Paso Robles and Atascadero fire departments or raising funds by asking voters to approve a property assessment tax.

Board President Gregory O’Sullivan said he likes the idea of consolidating with the Paso Robles and Atascadero departments, but that sort of process would be years down the road.

As for the other option, to pursue an assessment tax, O’Sullivan predicted that such an attempt is unlikely to be approved by voters.

“The problem is we have some very large voters that live outside of Templeton who don’t have any direct benefit in an assessment,” O’Sullivan said. “Assessment is difficult even if the community wants it because we have these outside voters. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

After four hours of discussion, the community’s desire to fix the ailing department won over the board, and the staff was directed to look into more ways that the Fire Department could be improved rather than contracting with Cal Fire.

Only Director Judith Dietch said she preferred the county contract.

“The Fire Department we had before is gone; we could sit here all night and argue over who’s fault that is; it matters not,” O’Sullivan said. “That model is not just broke; it is gone. Where we are at is, do we have enough consensus to say we walk down this road? … My opinion is that we at least give it one more opportunity to bring in the new interim chief, the past interim and the Firefighters Association and see where it goes.”

The topic will be added to the board’s regular agenda for discussion within 45 days.

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