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Fire contract with Modesto OK’d 3-1
Serpa and new quint
Ceres Battalion Chief Jeff Serpa stands next to the new Engine #18 which will remain in Ceres with Ceres’ name now that the City Council has decided to let Modesto run the department. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/ Courier file photo

In one of the longest meetings in Ceres’ history – nearly six hours long – the City Council voted 3-1 to contract with the city of Modesto to run the fire department.

Interim Fire Chief Mike Botto presented a picture of an overworked and short-staffed Ceres Fire Department that is unable to keep up with growing volume of calls for service and the need for more firefighters to be able to provide advanced life support services due to delayed ambulance response times. He outlined the budgetary steps it would take for Ceres to get up to speed before Modesto’s chief detained how Ceres would benefit from a contract.

Proponents of the change, such as Ceres Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Serpa, said Ceres “is basically getting the best level of service for less because we’re not duplicating services, we’re not having multiple fire chiefs … plus getting extra people.”

The city of Ceres is expected to save $507,000 in the first year which Botto said can be used to pay off equipment debt. He said over the initial five-year term of the agreement Ceres can save $1,170,583.

Public interest in the contract was high and the meeting ran late into the night. At approximately 11:35 p.m. the council voted to go with a contract. Only Councilwoman Linda Ryno voted no. Those in favor were Mayor Javier Lopez, Vice Mayor Couper Condit and Councilman Bret Silveira.

“It troubles me that tonight we hear that we have an ambulance response problem in Ceres,” said Ryno. “Last meeting we hear that there’s an alternative rather than doing regionalization that we should have done a long time ago to have a strategic plan to get our Fire Department more equipped. I think Ceres has had a fire department since 1911 and I think finding out these things this late in the game – let’s just jump into regionalization – is really not what we owe our community.”

Ryno wanted the council to further mull a four- or five-year plan to bolster staff. At prior meetings she didn’t want the matter taken up until a fifth councilmember has been installed in September.

Mayor Lopez opined that residents “want good positive change and that’s why we’re here and some people don’t like change but the change, I believe, is the right move.”

Condit took aim at Ryno, suggesting that he wouldn’t trust her to find ways to add over $2 million to the fire budget with her repeated calls for the city to live within its means and her unwillingness to commit all revenue from marijuana developer agreements to public safety. Those funds go into the General Fund, of which nearly 80 percent is spent on police and fire, however.

“I just don’t think that’s a serious argument that you have,” Condit told Ryno.

Silveira said that “to look four years down the road thinking we’ll be able to add those resources and have the revenue to do those is completely unrealistic.” He said Ceres faces a “huge liability every single day and has for years with our lack of inspections on buildings and businesses.”

To answer charges that the Measure H sales tax was passed to bolster police and fire services and that means Ceres should keep its own department, Silveira said those sales tax revenues will continue to be spent on police and fire services.

“It’s going to pay for firefighters just like it does now,” said Silveira.

“We contract with other people for a lot of things. Why would this be any different if this is the best option? I was elected to make sure that the citizens of Ceres have the top level of service in every different way that we can provide that for them. This, without a doubt, makes our citizens safer every single day.”

Botto said Ceres will not lose its identity as all Ceres stations and engines will remain as Ceres property with the Ceres name. He likened the contract not as a divorce but a marriage.

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,” Botto said.

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.

• Adding fire prevention and public education programs.

• An EMS program manager to raise the level of service of firefighter to that of paramedic/advance life support.

• Another 40-hour work week battalion chief overseeing and managing special operations of water and technical rescues.

• Special operations like water rescue.

• 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.

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.

An advocate of regionalization, Hackett said before resource sharing was made available with Ceres and its neighbors, some calls received a critical delayed response.

“We have always done more with less,” said Hackett, “but at the same time we would catch a fire and how many EMS calls used to go unanswered when we couldn’t respond? It was not uncommon for us to run multiple calls and not respond to additional calls that came in. It would go unanswered so they could be 15-20 minutes before an AMR ambulance would get there. So with this (Modesto) model, as soon as the resources are drawn down these battalion chiefs have the ability to start … moving resources in to backfill.”

Serpa gave the example of Friday in which the department was tending to six calls at the same time, including two of Ceres’ three units tied up with a potential structure fire. Because of automatic resource sharing, all of the calls were handled. 

Serpa, a 19-year employee, said he remembered the days when Ceres ran two-man engine companies but noted “just because we did it doesn’t make it right and it was incredibly unsafe for us as firefighters and it’s extremely hazardous to the public.”

He also told the council that the department has never had a strategic plan because it “doesn’t have the people to do it … we’ve never had the foresight and the ability to plan ahead. We’ve always been reactive and day-to-day.”

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. He also considers the change to be a partnership, not a takeover of the department.

“I truly believe this is a fire system that we are partnering in,” said Chief Ernst. “This isn’t the city of Modesto taking over. This is, again, a partnership that has the system in mind.”

He said Oakdale has been pleased with its contract with Modesto and has benefitted from the added staff and services.

Botto explained how the deficiencies in the Ceres Fire Department needed to be addressed if the council didn’t opt to contract with Modesto – but it would be costly. 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 a administrative battalion chief/EMS coordinator.

Ernst noted that Modesto can help Ceres deal with a lack of paramedic/firefighters and the “serious EMS issue in our county right now with ambulance providers and delayed response times.”

Serpa explained that Ceres firefighters can offer basic life support but a Modesto contract will allow Ceres to have paramedics to offer advance life support. He gave the example of Friday in which a critically injured motorcyclist went down on Highway 99 and lesser trained firefighters had to wait 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.

“Ask yourself, can you wait 15 minutes if you’re a heart attack victim or in this case major trauma from the accident?” asked Serpa. “Our staff did the best that they could do, the best they’re trained to do, the best they’re allowed to do. Had we had an ALS/paramedic/firefighter we could have provided that definitive care immediately.”

A number of citizens spoke in favor of the contract. Ceres resident Albert Avila, who is the city of Oakdale’s finance director, said regionalization offers better support. He suggested that a four-year plan to beef up its own department with no contract would not only take four years but would still only offer minimum staffing. A contract would offer immediate extra staffing and save money over five years.

“This works for the city and for the employees and gives the staffing that is needed for the Fire Department now,” said Avila.

Connie Vazquez, a council candidate, said she favored the change.

Rebecca Harrington, who has medical issues and lives near the South Ninth Street corridor, said firefighters from the former Industrial Fire Station have benefitted from backups from Modesto.

“I see this as a win-win for the community,” said Harrington, who likes that Modesto would be able to provide training to make firefighters paramedic certified. She said that’s some Pecos station firefighters are unable to render some critical medical assistance and she has had to wait 15 to 20 minutes for an ambulance company.

Greg Scudder said if one life is saved the contract is worth it.

Brenda Scudder Herbert, a lifelong resident of Ceres, said she was against contracting out service when it was proposed over a decade ago but now feels “this is something Ceres needs.” She specifically liked the offering of advanced life support services.

Not all supported the contract. Kathi Foster, wife of a Ceres fire captain, voiced her opposition which she said has alienated her from some in the department. 

She said firefighter morale has been worn down because Ceres hasn’t had a chief to concentrate on growing services “but the answer should be to hire a full-time fire chief.”

Foster said the intent of Measure H was intended to grow and expand police and fire services and fears that some residents may be upset and might petition to recall the measure and jeopardize funding for seven firefighters.

Another wife of a firefighter, only identified as Tina, said Ceres firefighters are exhausted after dealing with call after call because of manpower shortages.

“The facts are this is going to increase our service level, increase the number of firefighters in Ceres, build a relationship with Modesto Fire, allow us to have a fully staffed training division, fire marshal position, fire prevention position,” said Ceres Fire Battalion Chief Joseph Spani.