Visalia Fire Department affected by most expensive fire season in state history
Visalia Fire Department’s 2017 annual report says calls for service continue to go up but Measure N money should help meet the demand
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – The past year was the most expensive fire season in California history. And while most of the costs were incurred at the federal and state level, major fires in Tulare County and Southern California also put demands on the Visalia Fire Department (VFD).
Locally the Pier Fire, which burned 36,000 acres and caused $40 million in damages and costs last summer, challenged all local resources and required federal assistance to help with containment and extinguishment. In his message to open the 2017 annual report, Fire Chief Doug McBee said VFD’s OES Engine 375 worked the fire for more than 16 days.
VFD also sent nine firefighters, two fire engines and additional equipment in Santa Rosa and in Ventura on Strike Teams to combat the most devastating fires in California and the nation’s history. The Thomas Fire scorched nearly 300,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties causing an estimated $180 billion in damage.
“In addition to our everyday work here, we had our wildland team members out on multiple fires and often for up to 14 days at a time,” shared Chief McBee. “Our crews at home worked the required extra hours to make coverage possible and the State Wide Mutual Aid system was taxed to meet the resources necessary to combat this fire season.”
In the annual report, VFD said calls for service increased to 15,301, a 6% increase from 2016’s 14,283 and by nearly one-third in the last nine years. The fire department received just under 1,300 calls per month last year with the month of December receiving the most calls, totaling 1,404 calls for service. Seven in 10 calls were for medical aids, which have increased by 38% in the last five years.
The Department’s average response time to fire calls was five and a half minutes, with Emergency Medical Services calls average response time clocking in at five minutes and 11 seconds. The department consists of 83 chiefs, marshals, inspectors, captains, engineers and firefighters who conducted and received more than 18,000 hours of training last year, including training for emergency medical services, hazardous materials, facility, as well as officer, driver operator, and company training. Their efforts saved about $54 million in property loss due to fire.
“The men and women of the VFD are committed to our community and give the absolute best service possible to customers and citizens on a daily basis,” shared McBee. “This organization truly lives by its Mission Statement, ‘Dedicated to protecting all through Excellent Service.’”
The report outlines not just facts and figures, but shares the completion of the Visalia Emergency Communication Center (VECC), a state of the art Communication Center that was built to Essential Building Standards. Approximately 19,000 square feet, the VECC is home to Visalia Police and Fire Dispatch, Traffic Monitoring, Information Services, the Emergency Operations Center and Fire Administration. Its grand opening was in September on a Temporary Conditional Occupancy and achieved a full Certificate of Occupancy in November.
“It is a great addition for public safety needs today and into the future,” Chief McBee wrote in the report.
New technology at the VECC will work in concert with other new technology at the fire department. The VFD has applied for a grant totaling $240,000 through Assistance to Firefighter Grant for new radios. These new radios would provide the ability to communicate with both fire and police/EMS from one radio. With these new radios and the new equipment installed in the new dispatch center, the dispatcher will be able to identify who is “keying” up on the radio as well as obtain the firefighters location via GPS location transmitted from the radio.
The fire department is also benefitting from Measure N, a half-cent sales tax measure passed by Visalia voters in 2016. The first Measure N expenditure was to purchase a new ladder truck. On April 17, just two weeks after the sales tax officially took effect, the City Council authorized $1.2 million in Measure N funds to cover the cost of the city’s purchase of a Pierce Arrow XT Quint Aerial Apparatus it had prepaid in January. The vehicle is now in final prebuild at the Pierce Factory and should be delivered to Visalia by June of this year. Ladder trucks provide access to windows and roofs and provide large water streams from a height that allows firefighters to protect the roofs of nearby buildings and prevent the fire from spreading. This helps improve the city’s ISO, or Insurance Service Office, a rating used by insurance companies to determine fire insurance rates for a given area. The better the rating, the lower the risk and the lower the fire insurance for residential and commercial property owners. The report goes on to state that ladder trucks serve as a mobile tool box for large, specialized equipment that doesn’t fit on smaller engines.
Another $404,000 in Measure N funds were used to purchase a Pierce Light and Air Support Unit to replace a trailer mounted 1998 air compressor. The air support unit provides a compressor to fill self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles and includes a light tower. “Many of our incidents occur during the night-time hours and the light tower will provide improved illumination on our incident scenes,” McBee wrote in the report.
VFD also purchased a new fire engine for $610,000. The Pierce Arrow XT Fire Engine was delivered to the city on Dec. 11, 2017. It replaces a 1994 Pierce fire engine that will go into reserve status.