With healthier staffing levels within the Ceres Fire Department, the City Council last week signaled their support for firefighters to battle large fires in other parts of the state.
During a discussion item on the Aug. 12 agenda, members were agreeable to give discretion to Fire Chief Kevin Wise on whether Ceres firefighters should be dispatched on strike teams to fight large-scale state wild and grass fires.
Strikes team participation often results in reimbursements from the state of California which overcompensate for equipment use and salaries, netting extra cash for cities. The council said it wants those future reimbursements to be set aside for future fire apparatus replacement. Members also want a full audit of costs and reimbursements of each trip.
In the recent past, Ceres offered help to fight large scale fires and natural disasters if needed but recently dialed that support back to local fires – and only after the council was individually polled.
“As fire chief, my first and foremost goal is always to protect the city of Ceres,” said Wise, “and once we get a call for a strike team I have to insure that our city will be covered and our stations will be staffed.”
He told the council that he will commit after evaluating vacancies, and absences for illness or vacation.
Chief Wise indicated that in some situations, the state doesn’t reimburse 100 percent.
“For me, as fire chief, if they’re not going to reimburse our city 100 percent of our costs, we’re not going unless you tell me otherwise.”
In 2017 Ceres Fire provided strike team support to four statewide mutual aid requests in fires where property and lives were in peril. To participate, personnel have to be certified after taking courses and undergo training.
When revenues were dwindling years ago the city was unable to set aside money to replace fire engines, which tend to have a life of 10 years before being placed in reserve status until its 20th year. Last year after being told the department needed two new fire pumpers – still being manufactured for a March 2020 delivery – the council decided to borrow $2.8 million from the sewer enterprise fund to pay it back with interest. The new equipment includes a new $1 million quint ladder truck, two fire engines and an engine to fight brush fires.
The agenda item was crafted as discussion only with councilmembers favoring strike teams. A policy will be crafted and brought back for final approval.
Councilman Channce Condit recommended that any revenue enhancements from the state be set aside for future fire apparatus replacement. All members agreed.
Some on the council expressed concern about potential overtime, saying a bad taste was left in their mouth when a fire captain complained to the council years ago about having to work overtime just covering Ceres and spending time away from their families. Vice Mayor Linda Ryno wondered why “now if they went out on a strike team the overtime is okay.”
City Manager Toby Wells answered that staffing levels are higher today.
“We do have full staffing today that we didn’t have at that point in time,” said Wells. “Staffing levels are at full budgeted allocation today. That was not the case then. We did have a few injuries and other things going on with vacancies.”
Wells said if vacancies become an issue “we’re not going.”
Chief Wise said the decision has to be evaluated based on manpower forecasts.
“This should be your call,” Councilman Bret Durossette told Chief Wise. “Every year that we’re up here … we had to give permission to give to the firefighters to go out.” He expressed the delays that the process created. “You’re the expert. You’re the chief that we hired. You see, yes, we have backfill. You see, yes we have the equipment.”
Mayor Chris Vierra said he would support strike team participation only if the state reimbursements go “100 percent into the replacement of the equipment we are using and abusing as part of this and we don’t funnel it off and use it for other things.”
Councilman Mike Kline suggested setting a radius on how far Ceres teams would travel “so our truck is not going down to San Diego or up to Weed.”
Ceres resident John Warren commented that if mutual aid is needed in Humboldt County and the city is covered, Ceres should still send strike teams.