The Ceres City Council on Monday agreed to push forward with considering a contract with Modesto Fire Department for fire services.
A detailed proposal will be presented to the council on Monday, June 14.
Councilwoman Linda Ryno said she did not support discussing a merger until the fifth councilmember is in place by September.
Contracting with Modesto could not only save the city money but enhance service, said Interim Fire Chief Mike Botto.
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.
In September, then Fire Chief Kevin Wise suggested that contracting with a larger agency would be beneficial to Ceres and its residents, pointing out that Ceres Fire has limited administration, fire prevention and community risk reduction programs.
Botto said Ceres Fire administration is understaffed and “unable to meet our obligation.” He also said that Modesto will offer four-man engine companies for increased firefighting capabilities and safety.
Contracting for service with Modesto would be a “life changing event for our team,” and acknowledged that the changeover may stress and confusion but information and time will alleviate concerns.
Botto helped guide the city of Oakdale into its contract with Modesto Fire Department because the small department saw “a daily juggling act in an attempt to meet the needs of the community and insure a safe work environment for the team just as the Ceres fire chief is expected to carry the workload of three chief officers. This just can’t be done successfully. It is not healthy for the individual attempting to meet this demand or the community served because needs are not being met regardless of the excessive number of hours and commitment by staff.”
Botto said Ceres would not lose its identity as all Ceres stations and engines will remain as Ceres property with the same name.
In contracting with Modesto, Ceres would have a fire prevention division with a fire marshal, inspectors and support staff “to provide an aggressive life safety program to this community.”
He also said the city of Modesto would also offer:
•An operations chief overseeing and directing field response resources, exploring and implanting new strategies and tactics.
• An EMS program manager to raise the level of service of firefighter to that of paramedic/advance life support.
• A 40-hour work week battalion chief overseeing and managing special operations of water and technical rescues.
• Staffing the specialized Ceres Quint fire engine with four firefighters, increasing the number of on-duty firefighters in Ceres.
Botto said that during the height of the COVID pandemic, Ceres one battalion chief worked 16 shifts consecutively which would not be occurring under a Modesto contract.
He said administration does an admirable job but is “doing more with less.”
“A contract for fire services reduces the workload for this team and will provide some relief,” opined Botto.
Ceres Professional Firefighters Local 3636 President Jeremy Hackett said Ceres firefighters spent some time looking at the concept of a contract and voted 19-5 in favor of advancing with it, suggesting that there will be less stress for members who often must work multiple shifts over and over.
“We stand behind this wholeheartedly as one voice, as one group, to continue pushing forward for the betterment of the city so we can provide the best service possible,” Hackett told the council.
Modesto Fire Chief Allen Ernst, who also oversees the Oakdale contract, said he believes in regionalization saying “we are stronger together than farther apart.” He voiced his support for the changes, saying safety of community and firefighters is his primary goal.
Botto explained that deficiencies in the Ceres Fire Department need to be addressed if the council doesn’t opt to contract with Modesto. He said 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 over a five-year period, would need to budget three more firefighters, add a fourth firefighter to truck companies, hire a chief fire marshal and add one administrative battalion chief/EMS coordinator.
With the proposed 2021-22 fiscal year budget, Ceres is looking to expand some staff. Botto, however, said if Ceres continues to add staff over the next years it still won’t compare to what Modesto can offer.
Vice Mayor Couper Condit asked if the council was open to the five-year plan to “building our own fire department … which is actually a goal in our General Plan.”
Mayor Javier Lopez said he didn’t believe Ceres Fire would be close to the service level offered by Modesto.
“I believe regionalization is not only going to benefit the city but the citizens when it comes to services,” said Lopez.
Ryno advocated looking at the five-year budget plan to bolster Ceres as its own agency. She took exception to Botto’s suggestion that Ceres is not presently providing adequate fire protection. She suggested the plan was more to “bump up administration: “Is that really what the community wants? They want more chiefs than Indians? I don’t believe so.”
Botto replied that more firefighters are included. He further stated that Ceres doesn’t have enough administration to do some needed tasks, such as review its contract agreements with Industrial and Ceres Fire Protection districts; look at funding to replace the Pecos Station; conduct a standards of coverage program; short- and long-term planning; and conducting an effective fire prevention program.
“We are a small department,” Botto insisted. “We cannot cover all of our bases. We are not going to ever be large enough to do all that we need to do. That’s why joining forces (is needed).”
He implored the council to explore a “better system.”
Ryno continued lobbying for the council to await the new member before looking at specifics of a Modesto contract.
“The time is now, the time is right,” rebutted Councilman Bret Silveira, who likes the idea of adding programs. He said the decision to look to Modesto is a “no brainer” and mentioned how the firefighters overwhelmingly support exploring a contract.
Ryno implied that she resented Silveira’s use of the phrase “no brainer.”
“I don’t really understand what that means, ‘it’s a no brainer.’ So I’m disagreeing with you, does that mean I’m stupid?”
Silveira clarified that it’s his way of saying he’s 100 percent in support of something.