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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

CoCo County: Pay Tax Now or Close Fire Stations Later

 Contra Costa's largest fire agency will shutter four fire stations in January, close up to six more by 2015, and stop responding to low-priority incidents if voters reject a $75 annual parcel tax on the general election ballot.

MARTINEZ -- "We are planning for the worst and hoping for the best, hoping we will not have to implement this service-reduction plan," Contra Costa Fire Chief Daryl Louder told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. 

The board governs the 600,000-resident central Contra Costa County fire district.
Measure Q, the fire district's seven-year parcel tax proposal, needs a steep two-thirds approval at a time when recession-weary voters face a plethora of new tax proposals from cash-starved state, school and local agencies.

Ballot measure opponents have repeatedly said the fire district is holding taxpayers hostage, threatening service losses while refusing for years to reform firefighter pensions or seriously evaluate alternative ways to fight fires and respond to medical emergencies.

But no matter which argument the voters ultimately endorse, the math is indisputable: Without Measure Q's roughly $17 million a year in additional property tax proceeds, the fire district will burn through its reserves in a matter of months and must cut expenses.
The reductions have consequences, Louder said.

Losing 10 of its 28 stations will lead to longer response times, more fire damage, greater chance of injury or death for emergency patients, and reduced participation in the regional and state mutual aid system, he predicted.

The agency hasn't yet identified the stations within its nine cities and unincorporated communities targeted for closure.

Operational staff is working on a closure priority list and will consider factors such as proximity to other fire stations, refineries or other high-risk facilities, busy freeways and call volumes.
But in neighborhoods where stations remain open, the firefighters must absorb the extra calls and extend their staff and equipment further, the chief said.

"The call volume isn't going to go down, it will just be redistributed to the open stations," Louder said. "No part of the district will escape the impacts."

However, no firefighters will lose their jobs in the initial shutdown in January, Louder said.
Instead, the district will eliminate the overtime that has allowed those stations to remain open even with reduced staffing levels.

It takes a minimum of two firefighters and one firefighter-paramedic to operate each engine or ladder truck. While many firefighters want and rely on overtime to augment their salary, the district is increasingly mandating overtime in order to meet the staffing requirements, Louder said. Eliminating overtime means no staff is available to operate those engines and trucks.
Fire service cutbacks will also impact the county's ambulance service, Emergency Medical Services Director Patricia Frost told county supervisors Tuesday.

While the county's contract with American Medical Response, or AMR, mandates maximum transport times, ambulance personnel rely heavily on firefighters trained and equipped to extricate people from wrecked cars, burning buildings or even from behind locked doors.

Fire station closures may lead to more incidents in which ambulance staff is first on the scene and unable to get access to the most critical patients, such as those in trauma situations or in cardiac arrest, Frost said.
"Fire is a critical link," she said. " ... What we're talking about are fundamental changes in our service capabilities that are unprecedented."

If Measure Q fails, the Board of Supervisors will likely make station closure decisions at a public hearing in early December.

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