The Cambrian

Cayucos Fire Department could be disbanded

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

Cambria’s services district isn’t the only agency in the county that’s considering changes in how it provides fire protection.

Cayucos Fire Department commissioners have proposed dissolving the department and handing firefighting and other emergency services duties over to San Luis Obispo County by the end of the year. Officials said the main reasons for the proposal are a lack of staff for the volunteer-driven agency and the rising cost of providing services.

Indeed, to maintain current levels of service in the stand-alone departments, voters might be asked to approve special or additional taxes or fees to offset those escalating costs.

Differences

But there are considerable differences between the situations in Cayucos and Cambria, according to San Luis Obispo Cal Fire Chief Robert Lewin, who also is the interim fire chief for the Cambria Fire Department while the Cambria Community Services District plots the department’s future.

In an email interview Oct. 19, Lewin wrote, “As far as similarities between the situation in Cayucos and Cambria, there are none. Cambria CSD is not considering dissolving” its longtime stand-alone fire department.

“CCSD has funds available to have a sustainable fire department,” he said. “CCSD is not considering an agreement that would involve the County. CCSD is considering an agreement directly with Cal Fire.”

Lewin explained that “if the county ends up with responsibility for Cayucos, our role will be to simply provide whatever level of service the county asks us to. We currently only have an ‘Amador Agreement’ with Cayucos Fire Protection District that keeps our Cayucos Station open year-round for immediate response to all calls in Cayucos when our state fire engine is in quarters,” similar to the contractual situation for Cal Fire’s Station 10 in Cambria.

Interims and pauses

A falling-dominoes set of CCSD and Cambria Fire resignations has left the department with a series of interim assignments and promotions:

  • The CCSD ad hoc committee has been investigating whether to hire a new fire chief to replace Mark Miller, who resigned in July. In the meantime, the district signed a one-year interim contract with Cal Fire to manage the fire department.
  • Cambria Fire’s Emily Torlano was temporarily promoted to interim fire captain, filling the position left vacant when 27-year-veteran firefighter Steve Bitto retired in September.
  • Reservist Tyson Hamilton is backfilling Torlano’s position as fire engineer until a decision is made.
  • However, actions of the ad hoc committee have been on hold since the Oct. 1 resignation of CCSD director Muril Clift, who served on the committee with Director Mike Thompson.

Funding and volunteers

There are two striking similarities between the Cayucos and Cambria situations, however: Both departments are funded through property taxes and special fire taxes; and each has a shortage of volunteer firefighters (paid only when they respond to a call).

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

The staffing shortage problem isn’t exclusive to the two communities, but is being felt by volunteer community fire departments across the country, he said.

“It’s a nationwide problem. Traditionally, the people who were volunteer firefighters were people in the community. Now with the training that’s required,” Lewin explained, “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.”

The Cambria department began as the all-volunteer Hope Fire Company in 1877. But, in part because of the community’s remote location, Cambria Fire has since gone pro, and now has a core paid staff that, when supplemented with volunteers, provides around-the-clock staffing of three firefighters.

CCSD’s union contract with the firefighters calls for a chief and six full-time positions. Department records show there are 14 volunteers (some available only seasonally) on the roster. The 2015-16 budget for the department is nearly $1,776,000.

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.

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

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

The department has 11 on-call volunteer firefighter positions, Walton said, and operates on a roughly $500,000 annual budget.

The Cayucos 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 on-call staffing shortage.

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

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