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Interim Calif. fire chief sends letter highlighting frustrations over funding, staffing, missed calls

Interim Sebastopol Fire Chief Jack Piccinini wrote to city officials, politicians and the media about the challenges in the department


Sebastopol Fire Department/Facebook

By Jeremy Hay
The Press Democrat

SEBASTOPOL, Calif. — Two days before he stepped down as Sebastopol’s interim fire chief, Jack Piccinini sent a letter brimming with frustration to the City Council, other fire officials and politicians around the county.

In it, he urged the council — which is facing a $1.67 million budget deficit, has implemented a hiring freeze, and last week declared a fiscal emergency — to address staffing issues at the city’s volunteer fire department that he said compromise public safety.

Volunteer firefighters are no longer able to provide the 24-hour staffing the city needs, he said, and the department must transition to a career firefighter model — as others in the county have — to ensure it has enough personnel on hand at all times to respond to calls in a timely fashion.

“I am very aware of the city’s financial challenges, but those challenges can no longer be used as a reason not to take immediate action,” Piccinini said in the Nov. 1 letter, which he also sent to local media.

Sebastopol Mayor Neysa Hinton said she wished Piccinini had not aired his concerns as publicly, and that the city is working to arrive at a solution to the issues he raised.

“Is that going to get the solution to happen better or faster or in a better process? I don’t think it does,” said Hinton, who serves on a City Council subcommittee that Piccinini was also on. That subcommittee has been examining ways to bolster the city’s fire services, including through potentially consolidating the department with another fire district.

She added that she had successfully pitched adding a fire engineer’s position to the department during the most recent budget discussions, in the face of recommendations from a budget subcommittee for further cuts.

” The City Council’s been trying to look at options to improve our fire department for at least five years,” Hinton said Saturday. “We’re a small city, and so it’s really difficult to fund a stand-alone fire department, which is why all over the county there’s so much consolidation that’s been happening.”

Piccinini noted Saturday that the city implemented a hiring freeze two weeks ago, and said the situation is too pressing to put off action. He suggested the city should either dip into its reserves or find some sort of bridge funding, perhaps from Sonoma County, to support the department by at least expanding an $80,000 program meant to give volunteer firefighters an additional incentive to respond to calls.

In his letter, he cited six incidents in January and February where the department had been unable to respond to emergencies because of a shortage of staff. He said: “This letter is driven by two recent incidents magnifying the seriousness of the issue, a message I have been delivering to the council multiple times over the past 10 months.”

Those two incidents, he said, were the department’s failure on Oct. 23 to “deliver appropriate emergency response service in assisting a citizen with a medical alarm,” and on Oct. 28, a 7-minute response time to a mobile home fire that grew in size because of the delay.

Piccinini, who has previously raised the issue of response times, said Saturday that he consulted with firefighting peers about his concerns before sending the letter.

“The facts that Jack put forward about missing emergency responses, as well as the length of response time to certain emergencies, they don’t meet our standards and they’re concerning,” said Steve Akre, President of the Sonoma County Fire Chiefs Association, one of those officials with whom Piccinini spoke.

The association is leading the campaign for a 1/2 cent sales tax measure on the March ballot — the Sonoma County Fire Prevention & Response Measure — which would fund fire services countywide, including $1.2 million annually to Sebastopol.

“It’s not my place to try to dive into Sebastopol’s finances and how they choose to address this. I don’t feel like there’s this case of unlimited resources and there’s just not a desire to address a service issue. It’s trying to balance it,” Akre said. “And so I would encourage and support any measures that try to bridge a gap between now and when the sales tax measure funding is received.”

In a report he sent to the council with his letter, Piccinini estimated it would cost $415,000 to maintain a stipend program for volunteers and to hire three full-time engineers to work a 24-hour shift schedule.

Hinton said she doesn’t understand why, if the need was so urgent, Piccinini didn’t fill the engineer’s position before leaving the city; the council approved the position in June.

“It was Jack’s job to hire, if it was an emergency for the department, the minute we released the money,” she said.

Piccinini said an initial candidate wasn’t a good fit for the position, and the job had to be listed again. He had been reviewing a second round of candidates’ written exams when the hiring freeze was instituted, he said.

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