Should Ceres be sending emergency firefighting strike teams to battle wildland and forest fires even though there isn't enough personnel to man Ceres Fire Station 3?
During Monday's Study Session, members of the Ceres City Council said "no" - for the time being. But that could all change if the city snags a second round of federal grant money to help fund additional firefighters.
The city of Ceres believes it stands a good chance to snag the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant through the Department of Homeland Security. A sign that Ceres may be next awarded over $1 million is that the U.S. government recently asked for Ceres banking account information, said City Manager Toby Wells. Word should come by mid-September if the grant is awarded.
The city snagged a two-year SAFER grant in 2012 which allowed the city to hire six firefighters on a temporary basis. When grant funding dried up, however, firefighters in September pressured the City Council to find ways to keep the six employed. To make that happen, the council agreed to dip into Measure H tax funds by $100,000 as part of a way to cover the $393,000 expense for the remainder of the year to keep the six. To find money to keep the six, however, the city resorted to saving in overtime costs by "browning out" Ceres Fire Station #3, as it experiences the least call volume of all four stations, and using existing personnel to cover shifts to cover absences.
City officials say response times in southwest Ceres are at times slower than if the Service Road station were staffed but they are within acceptable time frames.
Nearly a year ago the council said that due to a manpower shortage Ceres will not be sending strike teams to help the state battle forest fires. The matter was revisited at the request of Vice Mayor Bret Durossette who had talks with firefighters who want to participate in strike teams.
Wells said he doesn't feel strikes teams are a policy decision but should be an "operational decision" made by him and Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes "on the basis of what's going on in the department at that point and time with the resources requested."
The state reimburses cities that send strike teams to fires but the check usually comes five to six months later and does not fully cover all of the city's costs.
"At the end of the day it's a break-even proposition," said Wells.
Chief Nicholes said that during the August 2014 Siskiyou fire, the state's reimbursement was $987 short in covering Ceres' costs. During the Aug. 20 to Oct. 2, 2013 participation in the Rim Fire, the state paid Ceres $27,383 for its strike team role but Ceres estimates the cost more like $31,977, or $2,730 short.
Durossette said he sees strike teams as benefiting firefighters as far as experience and extra pay are concerned. But he said currently the pressing need is to make sure Ceres is covered first.
"We've got to take care of our city and we have four or five individuals out at this current time so I can see probably not sending anybody at this moment," said Durossette. "But I would like to see it back. I would like to see our guys have an opportunity to do strike teams in the future. If that's next year then it's next year."
Councilman Mike Kline said Ceres is down four firefighters compared to a couple of years ago. He said if staffing levels rise, strike teams would again be a possibility "once again."
"I think we need to wait until next year," said Kline. "If we don't get the SAFER grant ... the council has another decision and work with the firefighters and staff to see how we can maintain what we do have without laying off SAFER grant employees. That would place us nine personnel down."
Councilman Ken Lane agreed.
Ceres resident Len Shepherd, a former state firefighter, suggested the council was on the right track. He directed his comments at Durossette when he said: "Think about the citizens of Ceres. I know, coach, you want to be in that game kicking butt and taking names and it's making money for the firefighters but I'm a citizen of the city of Ceres. I don't want to see our guys going off, unless it's close like Knights Ferry or someplace like that. But to send them off to Washington and Oregon? That could happen. If you get into that state strike team pool and you could be gone."
The state typically asks cities to send four personnel for a strike team. That time frame can last from a week to 28 days.
The city continues to participate in mutual aid calls within Stanislaus County. Wells said nine Ceres personnel assisted in the brush fire that threatened homes east of Oakdale last week.
After the meeting, Ceres firefighter Carlos Hampton said making extra money is not the sole purpose firefighters want to go on strike teams. He said he got into the firefighter business because he loves to help people.
"It always comes down to money, money, money," said Hampton. "At what point do we say it's not about the money? It's about your life, it's about your property, it's about what you've built. I understand we have money issues ... but when do we say life is greater than the dollar?"