With one public-input workshop under their belts, a two-member ad hoc committee on Cambria’s fire protection will hear again (at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3) from residents about their preferences for in-town fire services: A stand-alone Cambria Fire Department or a contract with Cal Fire.
On Monday afternoon, Aug. 31, Muril Clift, vice president of the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors, and Mike Thompson, a director, listened to opinions from about 50 people, sometimes casually discussing the issues.
That discussion seemed to stalemate occasionally.
Directors said they wanted to know attendees’ wants, questions and concerns. Those could include, according to a questionnaire Clift passed out when the workshop began, “What do I want to see as a fire department? What services do I want from the fire department? I am willing/not willing to pay additional taxes for these services.”
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However, some in the audience said before they can answer those questions, they need a lot more information, including costs for both options and specific details on what those costs would include.
Joen Kommer said she’d “lived here since 1992, and I don’t know what all the services are provided by Cambria Fire, what services by Cal Fire, and what services we’ll need.” She said, “after the Santa Margarita fire and wildfires in Washington, we’re all feeling pretty vulnerable.”
Another woman said, “You want us to tell you what we want. We want you to tell us what the differences are.”
Clift and Thompson repeatedly assured attendees that no decision has been made. Clift said, “I guarantee it is not a done deal.”
As an “all-risk” fire service, Cambria Fire is responsible to fight in-town structural fires and provides a wide range of other public services, from fire-prevention education and changing batteries in smoke detectors for people unable to do so to helping a disabled resident get up from the floor and back into bed.
Cal Fire fights wildland fires in so-called “state responsibility areas,” including all of the North Coast. Under contract to the county, Cal Fire also provides some firefighting services to unincorporated areas, and the agency also is contracted to fight fires in some communities and cities.
And, under mutual aid agreements, Cambria Fire and Cal Fire units respond to all fires (wildland, vacant lot, structural or vehicle), most traffic accidents and calls for medical services.
Rob Lewin, chief of Cal Fire and county fire, has asserted in the past that, under those community/city contracts, Cal Fire firefighters often provide many of the same ancillary services, as do their peers at Cambria Fire.
About two-thirds of attendees wore their opinion on identical, bright red T-shirts that proclaimed “Keep Cambria Fire Local.”
The two directors said they plan to home in at the Sept. 3 workshop on exactly what people mean by “local.”
“Does local mean the firefighters have to live here?” Clift asked rhetorically after the workshop. He said only one current Cambria Fire firefighter does, and he (Fire Capt. Steve Bitto) retires later this month.
What “local” seemed to mean to some in Monday’s audience was firefighter familiarity with Cambria’s terrain, roads and their condition.
Mary Ann Meyer, a Cambria Community Healthcare District trustee, said, “I take great comfort in knowing our local fire department employees are vested in the community” and they already know on which streets the large fire engine can turn left or right easily. “Sure, Cal Fire can type the address in on GPS,” but most Cal Fire firefighters “don’t know Cambria … don’t work here.”
She pointed out that “a lot of Cambria Fire firefighters also work for the healthcare district. To combine the two (agencies) would make a super-efficient emergency service provider.”
The two districts have discussed that option at length for years, but some legal and jurisdictional issues have kept the concept at bay. However, Clift has said those discussions could resume.
Retired fire chief residents chimed in Monday on the Cambria Fire Department-Cal Fire decision, all apparently emphatically in favor of CCSD continuing to operate the local department.
Bob Putney, who served for eight years as Cambria Fire’s chief, and Bill Knoop spoke repeatedly and passionately about why they prefer the local department over the state-run Cal Fire, even if an eventual bid for the state department’s contract should initially be lower than the district’s current cost for operating Cambria Fire.
But passion expressed at the workshop wasn’t limited to the retired pros who spoke. A couple of women were close to tears as they explained how much it meant to them to have Cambria Fire paramedics arrive before Cal Fire during life-threatening or end-of-life crises.
(At least one certified paramedic is on duty during each Cambria Fire shift. Every Cal Fire firefighter must be an emergency medical technician, or EMT, who has similar training but isn’t certified to do advanced life-support procedures, such as inserting an IV.)
As Jerry Wood, who is retired from Pasadena Fire Department, said, “If I’m laying on the floor, I’d hate to have them (firefighters) tell me, ‘Wait a minute, the ambulance is on the way.’
“My biggest concern” about a Cal Fire contract, he said, is “we'd lose local control. If we have a problem, we might have to go to Sacramento to fight for what we want.”
Wood covered more than a dozen reasons he thinks CCSD should keep Cambria Fire, ranging from faster response time, the needs of Cambria’s aging population and the district’s responsibility to provide engines and equipment for Cal Fire to use … to accessibility of the fire chief and the services district’s responsibility to use “fire benefit assessment” funds only for fire department costs.
Georgianne Jackson, a longtime resident who lives near the Cal Fire Coventry Lane substation, was nearly in tears as she described what transpired after she called 911. “Guess who got here first? Not Cal Fire. It was our local guys. Imagine what I would have felt if the others would have gotten there first. … At least I had the comfort of knowing I got the best that was available. I think we need to fight for that.”
Later, she said, “We need a decision made by local people, not the board” of CCSD.
Ann Glaser, a 27-year Cambria resident, said emotionally that during the last week of her husband’s life, Cambria Fire was “extremely helpful, and when I heard you were contracting with Cal Fire, taking away our local control, I was really astonished. … I’m appalled. …”
Thompson and Clift each described similar medical experiences in which Cambria Fire firefighter/paramedics arrived first in the wave of three agencies that respond cooperatively to every medical call, accident location or fire.
No uniformed firefighters were allowed at Monday’s meeting, Clift told the audience, because he and Thompson wanted to maintain the casual, conversational vibe without what some might have perceived as subtle pressure to support one department or the other. Before the workshop began, he politely told three uniformed Cambria Fire personnel to leave, according to the firefighters, who immediately complied.
Some workshop speakers praised Cal Fire, including Putney and Knoop, but nobody endorsed the concept of having the state agency provide in-town fire service.
“Cal Fire’s a great organization,” Knoop said. “The job they do is great. They just have a different mission” than a locally controlled fire department does.
Mark Bonnard said “it’s clear” the two fire services “have different priorities. The way this fire season is, Cal Fire is strapped for resources. Can we rely on Cal Fire for the same response we get (from Cambria Fire)” to extinguish a small fire that could turn into a large conflagration if not put out quickly? “We need all the local stuff. But for you to ask me” what I want, “I won’t know half of what I want until I need it. It’s really important to have a local department. It’s worth the expense we’d have to pay for it.”
Resident Craig Smith said that with a Cal Fire contract, “we already have Cal Fire assets in place” under the state and county mandates. If CCSD retains Cambria Fire, “We’re not losing Cal Fire at all,” but if the district contracts with Cal Fire for local fire services, “we’re not really gaining anything.”
According to www.firepreventionfee.org, Cambrians are among state property owners of “habitable structures” who pay annually a separate Cal Fire SRA fee.
Cambrians’ fees are reduced to $117 from about $135 a year, because the town has a local fire department.
The fees approved statewide in 2011 help Cal Fire pay for such non-firefighting services as fire-prevention engineering and education, emergency evacuation planning, fire hazard severity mapping, implementation of state and local fire plans and fire-related law enforcement activities such as arson investigation and defensible-space inspections.
There was discussion Monday about recent Cal Fire inspections in Cambria, which some in the audience said were not as complete as they are legally required to be, and which therefore won’t provide full details about the effect of the drought on area trees and greenery, and which trees are dead and should be removed.
That’s a key issue in ongoing risk-reduction discussions between CCSD and county officials who are still trying to hammer out a blanket emergency permit in Cambria for dead-tree removal.
Making the choice
Thompson said the Sept. 3 meeting would be one of “at least five” more opportunities for Cambrians to voice their opinions in public about the pending Cambria Fire/Cal Fire decision, but he didn’t say if all of those would be workshops or if some would be the formal full-board meetings at which the directors would deliberate and make their choice.
He and Clift estimated the selection process would take from six months to a year.
The district has about 11 months to go in a one-year management contract under which Cal Fire is managing Cambria Fire. The CSD directors approved that contract in June to fill the department-leadership gap after previous fire chief Mark Miller retired in July. Some residents, however, had advocated promoting a new chief from the fire department’s current staff of three fire captains, William Hollingsworth, Steve Bitto and Johnathan Gibson.
Fire chiefs speak out
The retired firemen implied that CCSD shouldn’t count its cost-saving chickens before the eggs are laid, saying the powerful union for Cal Fire firefighters is in locked-horn negotiations with the state, demanding raises and shorter shifts for the agency’s firefighters (they work a 72-hour shift now; Cambria Fire firefighters work 56-hour shifts).
If the union prevails (and, Putney said, even if it doesn’t), Cal Fire contract costs will go up.
He said Los Osos CSD has been notified it faces an increase of up to 11 percent (about $180,000) in its Cal Fire contract cost, and that some communities that previously contracted with Cal Fire have opted not to continue, having already interpreted the writing on the wall of the fiscal future.
Cal Fire won’t provide a formal bid with a breakdown of costs for services until CCSD and the community have committed to hiring the agency. Chief Lewin has explained in the past that preparing such a bid is a time-consuming, costly process, and the no-bid-without-commitment policy helps reduce statewide expenses.
The next day, Bonnard seemed to sum up the prevailing opinion in Monday’s audience, describing that “what we have is what we want to keep because we like what we have.” He opined that “what we’d be losing is irreplaceable by Cal Fire,” especially in the arena of small but significant services and person-to-person knowledge.
Take the classical cat-in-a-tree scenario in which firefighters climb their ladder to pluck the fearful feline out of the branches. Yes, a Cal Fire contract might include such a service, he acknowledged, but at a price. “And with local control and local firefighters, not only are Cambria Fire’s firefighters apt to know the cat’s owner, they may even know the cat.”