Calif. FD: FFs will no longer enter burning structures if lives are not at risk

East Contra Costa Fire Protection District is taking measures to maintain operations amid financial shortfalls

Judith Prieve
East Bay Times

BRENTWOOD, Calif. — Faced with continued financial shortfalls, the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District has announced that it will take “new urgent measures” to maintain its limited operations and keep firefighters safe.

ECCFPD Chief Brian Helmick said during a news conference Thursday that the department will only send firefighters into burning structures if lives are at stake, starting on July 1.

The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District has announced firefighters will no longer enter burning structures if lives are not at risk.
The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District has announced firefighters will no longer enter burning structures if lives are not at risk. (Photo/East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Facebook)

“There are many realities and many forces that are driving the decision I am making,” Helmick said of the defensive strategy. “We really don’t have any choice, being underfunded and underresourced.”

The chief, in an earlier news release, said the district’s three-station model — instead of the six needed to cover 250 square miles — is “pushing firefighters to their limits as they respond to twice as many calls for help.”

In addition, only three of the department’s five fire engines will be sent to a working structure fire, Helmick said, noting East Contra Costa Fire is the only agency in the county to impose such a limit.

“If there is not a life-safety issue — if there’s not somebody inside — you need to do the best you can to fight the fire from the exterior to the interior but you cannot be aggressive and overextend yourself,” he said.

“If we have a situation in which firefighters get trapped or we become hurt, we are our own 911 system,” Helmick explained. “Until we can address our resource issue, and give firefighters the resources they need to do their jobs, we need to take a safe, effective approach.”

Helmick also said automatic aid agreements with other Contra Contra Costa County fire departments have been inequitable and cannot be sustained.

In the past, East Contra Costa Fire has leaned heavily on neighboring agencies, which themselves are strained. As a result, the department must look at new strategies, which include focusing on containing the fire to the structure involved, the chief said.

“We have outside agreements with other agencies,” he said. “We have great regional partners. They have subsidized us for a long time and those agreements continue to be strained and that is our problem.”

In announcing the changes, Helmick acknowledged the defensive-first operation strategy raises the safety risk factors at a time when the 2020 fire season is getting underway.

Helmick also announced that all public outreach events and station visits will be eliminated indefinitely.

“These are not steps we want to take – and candidly, they may not be the last. We may have to consider other, even more drastic measures,” Helmick said. “The reality is, we have to live within our means and keep our firefighters safe.”

The chief added that East Contra Costa Fire needs a six-station model, which it once had, to protect the population of more than 128,000 across its district, which includes Brentwood and Oakley Discovery Bay, Bethel Island, Knightsen, Byron, Marsh Creek and Morgan Territory.

East Contra Costa Fire District board President Brian Oftedal and firefighters union President Vincent Wells both said they supported the new defensive-stance steps.

“If we only risk lives if lives are in danger, then that is what we have to do and the fire board is backing that decision,” Oftedal said.

Once served by volunteers and composed of several city and town departments, the rural fire district was created in 2002 and had eight stations at its height. The district is funded almost entirely by property taxes, which were locked in the 1970s with the passage of Proposition 13, restricting the total property tax levy to 1% of a property’s assessed value.

While the fire board will address growth needs with impact fees and district-wide community facility districts, current needs will likely be addressed with some sort of voter initiative, the chief has said.

In an effort to educate the public, in the past few months, the district has begun running short videos on its history, financial issues and possible solutions.

Over the years the district and Brentwood and Oakley have all placed initiatives on the ballot to fund reopening stations, but all parcel tax assessments and utility tax measures have failed.

“We will continue to explore all options as we move forward,” Helmick said. “No options are off the table.” 


©2020 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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