Volunteer fire fighters come at a price

By: Stephanie Dumm News Messenger Reporter
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Volunteer firefighters could augment the Lincoln’s fire department but not fully replace paid firefighters. That’s according to Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt, who said that volunteers can “handle the job.” “A volunteer organization would supplement what we currently have and it’s not that we can’t have volunteers,” Whitt said. “It’s not that volunteers don’t work or can’t work but it presents another set of challenges to an organization that’s already stripped thin.” The cost to outfit and manage 20 to 30 volunteers could cost the city $80,000 to $120,000, according to Whitt. Two firefighters and one fire captain are slated for layoff in January, according to previous News Messenger reports, and one of Lincoln’s three fire stations is currently closed. Whitt said there are currently 24 firefighters in the Lincoln Fire Department, which leaves 21 in January. “Lincoln should have four engine companies, fully-staffed with a minimum of three personnel each, one truck company with a minimum of four personnel, an additional battalion chief and office help,” according to Whitt in March. The set of challenges Whitt spoke of were funding, training and managing a volunteer staff of about 50 volunteers. “You can use volunteers to augment staff and we probably could do a little bit better at trying to look at that in the future but that comes at a price,” Whitt said. “If you want the same level of service we are having right now, (it would require) a minimum of 50 volunteers that can guarantee that they could be here a minimum of 96 hours (per month).” That would equate to 2,160 staffing hours per week or the equivalent of 22.5 firefighters staffing one engine, each working four 24-hour shifts per month, according to Whitt. “If I wanted to open all three fire stations, it would take 70 to 100 committed volunteers that could guarantee me a minimum of four 24-hour shifts per month,” Whitt said. “It would be (an estimated) $400,000 to get started.” Lincoln’s fire department was staffed by volunteers until 2001, according to Whitt, because of growth. “That exponential growth moved from 11,000 people in 1999 to 42,000 people that we have today,” Whitt said. “Back 10 or 12 years, the fire department ran 200 to 400 calls a year.” Today, the fire department runs 3,200 calls a year for service, according to Whitt. “Right there, that tells you there’s a higher demand for service,” Whitt said. “In any organization, the higher demand there is for service, the higher dominance for paid versus volunteer.” Sam Silvas served as a volunteer firefighter for Lincoln from 1957 to 1997, serving two stints as a volunteer fire chief. The News Messenger asked Silvas if the Lincoln Fire Department could run on volunteers. “I don’t think so, not at this time,” Silvas said. “Maybe part volunteers and paid firemen.” Silvas said this is because a high percentage of calls the Lincoln fire department responds to are “medical aid calls,” and they “couldn’t leave their place of work” for a call. “If they had volunteers, they couldn’t go to that many calls,” Silvas said. “They couldn’t leave their place of work and it would be almost impossible for them to cover all of the medical-aid calls. The population was very different in 1997 versus now.” Silvas said “it costs very little to run a fire department as volunteers” but Lincoln’s fire department is costly “due to the high wages of today.” Armando Mayorga, who retired after 30 years with the San Francisco Fire Department and moved to Lincoln in 2005, said “it could” be possible to run off of volunteers. “But I don’t think it would be a good thing because we’re dedicated and that’s what we do for a living,” said Mayorga, who retired as a battalion chief. “My concern is the state certification. Who will maintain the vehicles and what happens when a volunteer gets hurt?” Mayorga said there is “accountability with a paid force.” “If someone is not doing their job, there are probably ways to help that employee improve, bring them up on charges or terminate them,” Mayorga said. He also said that a paid staff is “committed.” “I know it’s expensive and we pay them a lot but you’re putting your life on the line,” Mayorga said. “You want firefighters that are dedicated to being firefighters. A lot of firefighters have second jobs but their main job is firefighting and they do training.” To be a volunteer firefighter, Whitt said, the city would need to provide and pay for equipment such as turnouts and safety boots, as well as train them. “(Volunteers) have to meet the same training standards (of paid firefighters),” Whitt said. “We train them to a firefighter one.” A firefighter one title can be attained through either college classes or an academy, according to Whitt. “We are not putting anybody through the academy. It costs money and we would like them to come in with their firefighter one intact,” Whitt said. “(Volunteers) have to go through a bonafide training program that meets firefighter one standards and it’s up to the department to adopt stringent safety standards, because if you don’t meet those standards and a volunteer firefighter gets injured, the cost to the city is the same.” Warren Bostick, who has volunteered the past 30 years as a firefighter for Placer County Fire Station 75 and is currently that station’s fire captain, agreed that volunteers could supplement the Lincoln Fire Department but not replace the paid staff. “Seventy-two percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers,” Bostick said. “What they generally do is have a paid staff chief, a duty officer and dedicated volunteers performing firefighter and medical coverage.” To Bostick, it’s possible to manage volunteer firefighters today for Lincoln. “What they could do is like before, have a volunteer chief that does administration at a reduced rate, paid, but not the rate firefighters are paid,” Bostick said. “The chief would go out on calls, too.” Bostick suggested that city staff speak with volunteer fire departments “to see how they do it” and send out a request for proposal to see how much it would cost to have volunteers cover the city. Staffing the now-closed (because of budget cuts) McBean Park Station is a suggestion Bostick made, as well. “The only cost to maintain volunteer firefighters is clothing, insurance, training and a stipend pay per call,” Bostick said. Station 75, located near the intersections of Nicolaus and Dowd Roads, runs about 400 calls per service in rural Lincoln, according to Bostick, and Placer County Fire provides training and gear for volunteers. “Most of our job is public safety and not fire related,” Bostick said. “Real fires are a small percentage of what we do but there’s a high amount of training we receive. I don’t get paid for it and I love it.” ****************************************************** Cost to equip a volunteer firefighter Breathing apparatus: $4,000 Turnouts: $2,000 Self-contained breathing apparatus face piece: $500 Safety boots: $200 Turnout boots: $250 Gloves: $100 Uniform (two shirts and one pair of pants): $350 Total: $7,400