Cayucos Fire Department considers closing down

Cayucos Fire Department commissioners have proposed dissolving the department by January.
Cayucos Fire Department commissioners have proposed dissolving the department by January. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Citing a lack of staff for the volunteer-driven agency and the rising cost of providing services, Cayucos Fire Department commissioners have proposed dissolving the department and handing firefighting and other emergency services duties over to the county by the end of the year.

The commission sent its proposal in a letter to the San Luis Obispo County Local Agency Formation Commission earlier this month, but the department has yet to submit a formal application to begin the process.

Fire department and county officials are now mulling different options for keeping services, including contracting services to Cal Fire or posing a special assessment tax to voters.

The Cayucos Fire Department has historically been staffed by paid on-call firefighters since its creation in 1948, Cayucos Firefighters Association Vice President Mark Walton said Monday. Though they are paid when sent out on a call, the firefighters are considered volunteer by state standards.

Walton said the department has been unable to attract and maintain long-term volunteers despite several recent recruiting campaigns, and the problem has compounded in recent months due to the loss of several firefighters.

In addition, costs of staffing the department and providing services through an agreement with Cal Fire during the fire off-season has risen to roughly 50 percent of the department’s total budget, Walton said.

The department currently has 11 on-call volunteer firefighter positions, Walton said, and operates on a roughly $500,000 annual budget funded through property taxes and a special fire tax passed by voters in 2012. The department responds to about 400 calls for service per year.

We’ve put a lot of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears trying to make this work.

Mark Walton, Cayucos Firefighters Association vice president

But the departure of a few longtime volunteers and trouble finding replacements willing to meet the increasingly rigorous training requirements and time commitment has left the department without enough manpower to continue servicing the coastal community.

“We’ve put a lot of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears trying to make this work,” Walton said.

The future of the department is far from certain, Walton said, but there are options to pursue.

The department could dissolve and hand duties over to San Luis Obispo County, which would assume emergency responsibilities and all costs for providing services that are above property tax and revenue from the special fire tax. Costs not covered would need to come out of the county general fund. The county would likely contract services full-time to Cal Fire, which also maintains a station in Cayucos.

The association’s preferred option, Walton said, is to pass an additional fire tax to allow the department to overcome the paid call staffing shortage.

“We would like to see the community maintain local control,” Walton said.

The staffing shortage is a problem not exclusive to Cayucos, but one being felt by volunteer community fire departments across the country, said San Luis Obispo Cal Fire Chief Robert Lewin.

“It’s a nationwide problem,” Lewin said. “Traditionally, the people who were volunteer firefighters were people in the community. Now with the training that’s required, those people are less likely to be from the community but are using the (job) for experience and will apply for and get paid firefighting jobs elsewhere.”

Lewin noted that state standards require 100 hours of training before a person qualifies as a volunteer firefighter.

“This is really difficult,” Lewin said. “I don’t think anybody wants this.”

According to LAFCO Executive Director David Church, the agency has yet to receive an application for dissolution of the Fire Department.

The Cayucos Fire Department will continue to provide services until January as the process unfolds.

Department commissioners are scheduled to meet at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Cayucos Fire Station to receive input and answer questions from the public.