Fire Dept. blazed a trail as model for Counties
By Reggie Ellis
tulare county – Ten years ago, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors did something no one thought they could do, and many said they shouldn’t. In July 2007 Tulare County manned its fire stations with its own employees for the first time in nearly 80 years. It was a monumental decision because the County had contracted with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) through a service contract since 1929.
Steve Worthley, the only Supervisor that remains from the 2005 Board that made the landmark decision, said the cost of Cal Fire’s staffing had become “unbearable” due to labor contracts signed statewide under Gov. Gray Davis. Worthley said the County could not afford Sacramento prices in one of the poorest regions of the State. He said the financial aspects of ending a contract and forming a department were daunting. Despite owning all of the equipment and stations, the County had to pay two fire departments for 30 days as Cal Fire transitioned out of the stations while Tulare County had to pay to train an entire department of firefighters. Worthley said he and the other Supervisors were called traitors and threatened with recalls, but that he thinks it is one of the major reasons that Tulare County is one of the most fiscally sound county governments in California.
“As I look back on my career here, one of the great highlights was the creation of our own fire department,” he said.
Worthley made his comments at the July 18 Board of Supervisors meeting during a review of the department’s first 10 years provided by County Fire Chief Charlie Norman. Before the board’s historic vote in 2005, Norman recalled his son, now in college, was attending Sequoia Union Elementary School and asked if his class could come visit his father’s fire station in Visalia. When then Visalia Fire Capt. Norman asked why the class didn’t go down the street to County Station 13, he reminded his father that the station was closed a year earlier. Those closures were the first signs that something needed to change for the county.
The department’s first chief, Steve Sunderland, was in fact a retired Cal Fire chief in both Tulare and Fresno counties. Under his direction, the new fire department took over staffing at Tulare County’s 27 stations on July 1, 2007. By 2010, the department reopened the stations in Lemon Cove, Badger, East Porterville and Dinuba, established an honor guard for funerals and graduations, and developed its own fire-only dispatch separate from medical aid calls. Sunderland died last December at the age of 63.
In 2011, Joe Garcia was named TCFD chief and spearheaded the effort to establish a training center at Station 15 in Lindsay. Under Chief Garcia, a longtime fire prevention officer, the department established a chaplain program, upgraded its personal protection equipment, launched social media feeds on Facebook and Twitter and set EMT certification as a standard for all full-time firefighters.
Norman began being groomed to take over for Garcia in 2015. During the transition leading up to Garcia’s retirement, the department added a third battalion, lowered the ration of supervisors to firefighters from 20:1 to 1:7, launched an e-911 system and went to 2-0 staffing on fire apparatus. The staffing level on fire engines and patrols provided a greater level of firefighter safety by always having two full-time firefighters arrive on scene together instead of waiting for paid call firefighters, or volunteers, to leave their day jobs to respond to calls.
Kuyler Crocker, who represents District 1 on the board, called the decision “a courageous step,” while Supervisor Mike Ennis commended the department on doing such a good job he never hears any complaints from his constituents in mountain communities such as Posey. Supervisor Amy Shuklian applauded the department and offered her support in all of their endeavors.
Since taking over, Chief Norman said the department has added two new engines and established a swift water rescue team at Station 14 in Three Rivers, which works closely with the Sheriff’s Department. Norman said that is one of many examples of how the County’s decision to establish its own department has fostered partnerships with other county departments such as building inspections, hazardous materials and environmental health and mutual aid agreements with every municipal fire department and Cal Fire.
Chairman Pete Vander Poel said one of the biggest advantages to having local employees man the fire stations is the department’s involvement in the community. He said stations in Alpaugh the fire department is the only public safety/medical personnel in the community and the firefighters there are great role models for the youth and help raise money for community projects.
“You and your predecessors and your staff made all of this happen,” Worthley said. “Without your department we would not be here celebrating your success.”
That doesn’t mean running a County department doesn’t come with its own challenges. Norman said as calls for service increase, volunteerism is dwindling in the last four years. The department responded to 11,869 calls last year, including 7,204 medical aids, 1,436 fires and 315 hazardous conditions. Tulare County fire calls represent 12% of all calls, more than double the national average of 4.7% for both grass and structure fires. Volunteers also require 12 weeks of mandatory training before responding to a fire and full-time firefighters must train at the Fire Academy for a longer period of time to meet new regulations.
“The people we hire these days have more degrees than a heatwave, but having a smarter workforce you still have explain that this is Phillips and this is a flathead [screwdriver],” he said. “The lack of vocational education in our high schools has hurt us in our industry.”
Norman said despite the challenges there are some exciting changes coming for the fire department. He said the department is looking forward to its move into the Cigna Building on Akers Street in Visalia after years in the eastern side of the Farmersville Civic Center.
“Farmersville has served us well but we look forward to move,” Norman said, joking that the cubicles provide little privacy for fire staff. In the next few weeks, Norman said he will present a strategic plan that will plot the department’s course for the next five years, including a plan to develop a headquarters at the corner of Avenue 256 and Road 140 south of Visalia.