Contracting with the city of Modesto for fire services could not only save the city money but enhance service, members of the Ceres City Council heard on Monday.
After a presentation made by Interim Fire Chief Mike Botto, a consensus of the council favored exploring the idea of seeing what contract deal could be offered by either Modesto or Stanislaus Consolidated fire departments. Councilwoman Linda Ryno was alone in her suggestion to put off talks of a contract until a full council can decide to go down that path. Currently the council is one member shy.
Vice Mayor Couper Condit noted that Ceres Fire “regressed” from 38 staff members in 2018 to 33 today.
“With all due respect, Councilmember Ryno, I’m ready to listen to Modesto Fire and their presentation,” said Councilman Bret Silveira.
The city could realize a savings of $500,000 in the first year alone because of economies of scale while seeing increased service.
Fire regionalization is different from the resource sharing agreement the city entered in 2014. That agreement has Ceres helping neighboring fire agencies with Ceres benefitting from agencies helping it. Mutual aid has been going on for years but the resource sharing has fire departments being automatically dispatched.
The city of Oakdale and the Oakdale Fire Protection District has contracted with Modesto Fire, with its 165 personnel and $45 million budget, for fire service.
Fire equipment and stations would remain the possession of the city of Ceres and a contract would retain current Ceres firefighters.
In September 2020, then Fire Chief Kevin Wise suggested the move would be beneficial to Ceres and its residents, pointing out that Ceres Fire has limited administration, fire prevention and community risk reduction programs.
Calls for service in Ceres have increased while staff has diminished. About 11 years ago Ceres responded to about 4,200 calls a year for service. Since that time the city has reduced engine companies by one and eliminated administration by 50 percent. In 2018 Ceres Fire ran 6,100 calls for service.
Botto noted that Ceres recently formed a joint use fire training center at Ceres Fire Station #17 on Service Road with Modesto and Stanislaus Consolidated fire departments and that the academy is “overwhelmingly success.”
“This City Council is in an ideal position to explore a contract for fire services with the city of Modesto,” Botto told councilmembers. “You are currently without a permanent full-time fire chief and a contract will eliminate the need to do a comprehensive recruitment while benefitting from the fiscal and operational value of an administrative team serving multiple agencies.”
Botto said deficiencies in Ceres Fire need to be addressed if the council doesn’t opt to contract for service. He suggested the city would need to bolster the staff, which consists of 27 line firefighters, three battalion chiefs, one fire investigator, an administrative secretary and the chief. He suggested the city, on its own, would need to add three firefighters, adding a fourth firefighter to truck companies, one division chief fire marshal and one administrative battalion chief/EMS coordinator.
“Our fire department administration is significantly understaffed,” he added.
Staffing shortages means Ceres Fire’s fire prevention program is without safety inspections at businesses both commercial and industrial.
Botto also said the former Industrial Fire Station on Pecos Avenue need replacing.
“The advantage of the contract for service is eliminating duplication of efforts by utilizing a regional administrative team that is in place today with the depth of resources to meet the needs of the communities and the health and welfare of its team. We have three battalion chiefs who rotate 24/7/365 coverage responsibilities out of the Ceres headquarters station. During the height of the pandemic and due to unplanned circumstances, we had one battalion chief working 16 consecutive days. This is not healthy or even anywhere close to acceptable but as firefighters do, we step up to meet the challenge.”
A contract with Modesto would enable Ceres to have access to 13 personnel to cover three battalion positions daily.
“We have 27 firefighters covering nine positions daily on two engines and one truck company. We had 11 firefighters off due to illness from the COVID pandemic and all work related. We had exhausted firefighters working since the depth of our organization is limited. If we were in a contract for services, we would have 168 firefighters staffing 18 companies daily to pull from – greater demand but also at much greater depth of resources to cover for planned and unplanned absences.”
Botto said Ceres would not lose their identity as all Ceres stations and engines will remain as Ceres property and name.