The Cambrian

CCSD directors to vote on one-year contract with Cal Fire

A 'No Fireworks' sign is posted on Highway 1 at the south end of Cambria.
A 'No Fireworks' sign is posted on Highway 1 at the south end of Cambria. sprovost@thetribunenews.com

Directors of the Cambria Community Services District are to vote Thursday, June 25, on a one-year, $228,856 contract that could bring them one step closer to contracting with Cal Fire for management responsibilities, in-town structural firefighting and other services beyond the wildland fire and mutual-aid the statewide agency already provides to the town.

The one-year contract would replace retiring Fire Chief Mark Miller with interim services provided by Cal Fire. Miller said that decision would supersede succession plans the department set previously in which Fire Capt. William Hollingsworth would step in as interim fire chief until district directors decide what the future of the entire department should be. 

In an email to district General Manager Jerry Gruber and board members, Miller said Hollingsworth “has a great deal of institutional knowledge, formal training and is well prepared for this opportunities.” Miller called Hollingsworth “the best option for the community.”

Miller wrote that the Cal Fire contract “seems very expensive for very little.” Services covered by the agreement “you already have, due to Cal Fire’s SRA (State Responsibility Area) commitment in Cambria,” with the exception of plan review and inspection services for which the district now collects fees he estimated at $10,000 to $15,000 a year, but wouldn’t be able to do so under the contract.

While Gruber has said he’ll seek direction from his board about how to replace Miller, staffing decisions usually are among his responsibilities. 

Either way, with Hollingsworth or Cal Fire at the helm, CCSD and Cal Fire could continue exploring terms for a more permanent and wide-ranging arrangement in which the state fire-protection agency would administer, run and staff the stand-alone fire department that has served the community since 1877, when it was called the Hope Fire Company. 

The district board also expects to get advice on the future of the fire department from an ad hoc committee on the community’s options for fire prevention and response, with members to be appointed at the June 25 meeting.

The CCSD meeting starts at 12:30 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St. The Cal Fire item is the third-from-last item on the open-meeting’s agenda. However, the board occasionally approves rearranging the order of items on the agenda.

Repeat performance

The one-year interim management contract wouldn’t provide a fulltime, on-site fire chief, because doing so would be too expensive. Battalion Chief Phill Veneris probably would be the town’s primary responding officer; he also serves as the fire chief for the communities of Los Osos and Avila Beach, which have contracted with Cal Fire for their fire-protection services. 

Veneris or one of Cal Fire’s other battalion chiefs in the county would provide Cambria Fire’s leadership in an emergency. 

 In the past, Cal Fire also made presentations to Templeton and Morro Bay, but those communities didn’t contract for the services. 

This also isn’t the first time CCSD has considered entering into a cooperative fire-protection agreement with Cal Fire, having sought proposals from the agency in the past. Each previous time, the district board and the community decided to retain local control of their department that’s responsible for putting out structure fires.

Cambria currently has two active fire stations with separate crews and equipment: Cambria Fire’s station at 2850 Burton Drive and the Cal Fire wildland fire station at 6126 Coventry Lane on Happy Hill. The latter serves both as a county and state station. Through mutual-aid agreements, both crews respond to all fires, vehicle accidents and some other calls.

If Cal Fire were to assume local fire protection duties, it’s not yet known whether those stations would remain separate or would combine, and that decision isn’t one in which CCSD would participate. 

Opinions vary

Two retired firefighters with lots of experience, both Cambria residents, have different views on the future of Cambria Fire.

Greg Bates, retired Los Angeles County Fire Department field battalion chief, said while Cal Fire’s initial bid for the services might be lower than current costs, depending on what services the board and community want to include in the contract, that rate could rise in future years. 

“If we want the same kind of coverage that Cambria Fire Department provides,” he said, “it would cost as much or more, and we wouldn’t get the same level of coverage. They’ll be spread pretty thin, and the battalion chief would be coming up from Los Osos.” 

Retired Cal Fire firefighter/trainer Bruce Fosdike said, “Do they (Cambria Fire) have a good system here? Definitely. They’ve really done a good job. … I think having a local fire department, with more local control, is a good thing. But if you can’t do that and maintain the same level of service, it’s time to look elsewhere.” 

He said, “I’d stack Cal Fire firefighters against any of them. They’re not just ‘brush bunnies,’ although that’s what they specialize in. But they have a wide range of expertise.” 

He noted there’s an economy of scale for such things as management and administration, and more chances for firefighters to move up through the ranks.

Fosdike concluded that “it all comes down to what people in the area want and what they’re willing to pay for it.” 

Also on the agenda

In a twist of scheduling, district directors also are to approve a hard-fought three-year memorandum of understanding with their firefighters, through May 2018. The agreement includes stepped salary increases over the three years, reaching a total of 11 percent by Dec. 2016, but firefighters would in essence give back 7.5 percent of that raise in increased payment for retirement premiums. 

The board also is to consider: Extending for a year (and $102,000) the consultant-services agreement with Dean Florez and Balance Public Relations; increasing the voter-approved fire-suppression benefit assessment by 0.2 percent for fiscal year 2015-16; adopting the district’s 2015-16 budget; appointments to an ad hoc committee on future rate adjustments; and wastewater treatment plant screening equipment. 

A closed session after the meeting includes legal conferences with Services Employee International Union and periodic performance evaluations, as required by contract, for General Manager Jerry Gruber and district counsel Tim Carmel (whose firm Carmel & Naccasha received a raise last month, with a base rate for district work that rose to $185 an hour from $165).  

For details on the meeting, go to www.cambriacsd.org and go to Board Business.

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