Crescent City is planning to use Measure S funds to make major improvements to the fire department, including hiring more full-time employees.
In a special workshop meeting Monday, Fire Chief Bill Gillespie and City Manager Eric Weir presented the fire department’s needs and goals to the Measure S Oversight Committee and the city council. They recommended using 25% of the projected Measure S revenue, or $325,000, to add more full-time positions, implement a “sleeper” program, expand volunteer recruitment and incentives, as well as fund maintenance of equipment. Measure S is a one-cent sales tax projected to bring in $1.3 million in revenue.
Currently, the fire department is made up of a single full-time, paid employee, the fire chief, and about 20 active volunteers. With that crew, the Crescent City Fire and Rescue responded to more than 2,000 calls last year throughout the city and the district for structure fires, medical emergencies and plenty of false alarms. However, with call volumes rising annually, the current staffing model is not sustainable in the long term, said Gillespie.
“To say that we stay busy is an understatement.” said Gillespie. “I don’t necessarily see the trend in any of the fire service as dropping. It continues to get larger across the board and throughout the country.”
Gillespie said fire departments in Fort Bragg, Red Bluff and Arcata field similar call volumes with many more paid employees. In fact, the Red Bluff Fire Department is made up of 12 employees and 15 volunteers. Now, Crescent City Fire and Rescue is looking to bring on three more full-time employees, while maintaining their current volunteer positions in a hybrid staffing model.
The proposed “captain II” roles would be phased in one at a time. In the chain of command, they would fall under a volunteer battalion chief, but above captains, engineers and firefighters. Each position would cost $132,000 annually, which would be split between the city and the district. Kelly Schellong, chair of the Measure S Oversight Committee, asked whether current volunteers would have a chance at the job, Gillespie said that they would.
“Honestly, our volunteers would have a very good shot with this because they have a knowledge of the organization and a knowledge of the community,” he said.
Gillespie said the volunteers will remain the heart of the fire department, which is why he recommended expanding volunteer recruitment efforts, possibly through a partnership with the College of the Redwoods fire science program, which has happened in the past.
Additionally, he recommended implementing a “sleeper” program. Meaning, the department’s downtown Washington Station would become a liveable space for both paid firefighters and volunteers during their shift. A sleeper program would speed up response time for the department by having a crew in the station 24/7. Recent renovations at Washington Station have made it so little would need to be done to start housing firefighters, said Gillespie.
However, all of these changes depend upon a continued funding partnership between the city and the district, and as it stands, the district is in a hard place, said Gillespie. In fact, without additional funding, the Crescent Fire Protection District, which serves a 26 square mile zone around city limits, is set to run out of money in two years, at which point it would be forced to halt operations.
A district benefit assessment that would have revitalized funding for the fire protection district through property taxes failed to pass last fall, but the fire department is aiming at another benefit assessment this June, with property owners beginning to see ballots in April.