Arcata Fire’s Measure R: don’t compare fire apples to fire oranges

Published objections to Measure R rely on selective information, false comparisons, but the facts speak for themselves

There are two arguments against Arcata Fire District’s (AFD) special tax proposal, Measure R, in the Humboldt County Voter Information Guide. 

Misleading comparisons

One argument against Measure R, written by Kent Sawatzky, compares AFD to Fortuna Fire, Blue Lake Fire, and Ferndale Fire. He lists what their residents pay in parcel tax. You will see comparatively that Fortuna Residents pay double ($72) what Blue Lake Residents pay ($36) and Ferndale Residents pay ($20). 

If AFD’s Measure R passes, the five communities they protect would pay a total of $206/year between the new special tax and 2006 benefit assessment. 

The total number of incidents that each of these great volunteer departments responded to in 2018 is as follows: Fortuna (1,291 calls) Ferndale (234 calls), and Blue Lake (278). 

In 2018, AFD answered 3,357 calls for service. In 2019, AFD answered 3,860 calls for service. The higher the demand for service, the more the cost for service. 

AFD used to be a volunteer strong department with few career staff. As the demand for service increased, the number of career staff increased. AFD responds to nearly three times the number of calls compared to Fortuna Fire. Hence, the reason for three times the cost. 

If I were to break agency parcel tax down like Costco does with their products, AFD and Fortuna charge $.05/call, Ferndale charges $.08/call, and Blue Lake charges $.13/call. If you ask me, all agencies provide great service for reasonable cost. All four agencies control their revenues, meaning the State, County, and City cannot re-direct the revenues.

Mr. Sawatzky questions why AFD residents are asked to pay more than two-and-a-half times the rate of Humboldt Bay Fire and claims their single-family residents pay $72. 

Unfortunately, he doesn’t give you all the details. The $72 he refers to accounts for approximately 35 percent of HBF District’s budget, which is more than $9 million. HBF also receives revenue from the City of Eureka. Between the City revenue and other revenue sources, he omitted the other 65 percent of their $9 million budget. 

In 2018, HBF responded to 6,760 calls for service. This would explain why HBF’s budget and staffing is more than double the budget and staffing for AFD. Higher demand requires more fire stations, more staffing, more prevention efforts, more public education, and more tax base to support. AFD is no longer able to meet the demand with volunteers alone. AFD now has 22 career firefighters and 15 volunteers to support their Mission.

In his argument, Mr. Sawatzky asks about a better approach and refers to consolidated countywide dispatch and countywide fire district. Anyone can throw out random suggestions without backing the suggestion with a financial analysis report. 

Sheriff Honsal has been researching consolidated countywide dispatch. The preliminary estimated cost is over $15 million with an estimated annual cost of $8 million. 

The amount AFD would have to contribute annually is estimated at $245,000. Currently, AFD pays $138,000 by using CAL FIRE Dispatch.

Station locations

Mr. Sawatzky’s final argument suggests consolidating the two Arcata Fire Stations in a more central location. AFD had planned to do just that with their well-known “Building Project.” This plan was terminated after AFD completed research showing where the calls occur and response times. 

The fire stations are strategically placed where they should be. This allows AFD to do the greatest good for the greatest number of community members. The consolidated fire station concept was budgeted at $10 to $14 million dollars, which far exceeded the project budget. 

Instead, Arcata Volunteer Firefighter’s Association (AVFA) was able to use donations, bequests and a loan to renovate the Arcata and McKinleyville Fire Stations for approximately $4 million. AFD rents the Arcata Station from AVFA however, the building renovations were paid without using tax base. AVFA is a non-profit organization.

A costly, unfunded suggestion

In the second argument, Mr. Uri Driscoll and Mr. Sawatzky wrote a rebuttal to Measure R in the Voter Information Guide and I would like to address a few of their suggestions. In the rebuttal, they discuss “long-term fire service solutions.” 

The first solution they suggest is a consolidated fire station used as a “skill development training center for first responders, firefighters, and law enforcement.” They suggest on-site housing for qualified trainees committed to entering public service and development of a much-needed school to train more firefighters (assuming volunteer firefighters). They indicate the great opportunity to produce graduates of specialized training for employment throughout the county and nation. 

I’m curious how Mr. Driscoll and Mr. Sawatzky think AFD will afford to hire some of these graduates without increasing revenues. Do they want AFD to train them for other agencies to hire and have AFD continue the revolving door of graduates they have been supplying for well over twenty years? Remember, AFD tried to pass a special tax in 2015 so they could increase staffing to three per engine and it was overwhelmingly voted down.

Training and retention

Training for a volunteer firefighter requires the same as training for a career firefighter. A basic academy to reach California State Fire Marshal Firefighter I level (basic) is between 300 and 400 hours. In addition, because AFD responds to medical calls, 150 training hours are added for Emergency Medical Technician. 

On top of that, firefighters have to complete human resource training in topics such as sexual harassment, discrimination, ethics, and other similar topics. Law requires all of these. OSHA also has required training for volunteer and career firefighters. No wonder there is a reduction in volunteer firefighters across the nation. Who has the time?

If a dedicated volunteer firefighter completes all of the required basic training, they have to maintain the training every year and begin learning advanced firefighting skills. Firefighting is a perishable skill. In order to maintain proficiency, firefighters receive hundreds of hours in retraining each year. On top of training, volunteers must respond to calls all hours of the day and night. I already mentioned we run over 3,800 calls each year (10 per day).

If a volunteer gets hurt, they are covered by workers compensation insurance. However, workers comp is based on a starting firefighter hourly pay of $14.67/hour. I hope that they don’t become permanently disabled from injury while volunteering and are retired out on disability like five of our career firefighters have been in the last 10 years. A disability retirement is 50 percent of $14.67/hour tax-free. 

Can anyone provide for his or her family on $7.33/hour? Would you be willing to risk your career to be a volunteer firefighter? Would you volunteer your time to become a firefighter when you have 300 to 550 plus hours of basic training to complete followed by endless advanced training? If the answer is “Yes,” come see us. I recommend you have a long talk with your family before committing.

AFD has lost 200 volunteer firefighters in the past 16 years. Of those 200 volunteer firefighters, 60 of them are confirmed career firefighters across the nation. Sounds like AFD has been running a great training school as Mr. Driscoll and Mr. Sawatzky suggested in their rebuttal. AFD averages 1.4 years from a volunteer before they leave to become career or because they can no longer commit to the demand on their time. 

Working at AFD is like Groundhog Day. Come to work, train volunteers, watch them leave, and repeat the process. We conduct exit interviews and most who leave tell us the time commitment was too much. Ten career firefighters have left in the past 16 years and three more career firefighters just submitted notice they are leaving.

These personnel losses should not be taken lightly. The community is losing on their investment and money is essentially being flushed down the drain. Most of the expense is attributed to staff time, background checks, and equipment. It is very expensive to train firefighters and get them through the first three years of training before they become functional personnel. When a firefighter leaves, they take institutional knowledge, knowledge about the fire district challenges, and knowledge of how to protect our community. 

As the demand for service increases and salary and benefits are cut, we experience high turnover. Every time we lose a firefighter to a higher paying agency, AFD sees their unfunded liability increase because AFD is legally responsible to contribute toward their pension at the higher salary they earn in their new agency. 

We need to retain our firefighters and invest in them. Personally, I have worked my entire career with AFD because I like living here and my salary and benefits were conducive to raise my children here. 

We have cut benefits so much that new firefighters are not enticed to stay here for a career. For those of you who research Transparent California, you may think some of AFD’s personnel are overpaid. 

Costs and compensation

AFD personnel work a ridiculous amount of overtime. That means they are working beyond their required 56 hours/week. When you work more, you make more money. There is a cost to working more. Burnout, lost time with family, missed vacation time, etc… Some of our career staff average 65 to 70 hours/week throughout the year. That is a lot of extra work and is the equivalent to working a second full time job. 

Many of these hours are forced overtime to cover sick days or other accrued leave. When there is a vacancy from sick leave, firefighters are forced to stay on shift so the District can keep all three stations open. They are forced regardless of what they have going on in their personal life. 

Chief McDonald and the AFD firefighters place public safety above their own sacrifice and they have been doing this for years. This is a result of operating at minimum staffing. This needs to change or the community will continue losing firefighters to other agencies.

Deficit details

The last question I want to answer is in response to the question “Why is AFD asking for $2.2 million if their deficit is only $250,000?” 

This question was posed by Mr. Scott Baker in the Mad River Union. I have heard this question from many community members so I will take responsibility for not being clearer in educating our citizens. 

AFD has been deficit spending for over three years and has exhausted its contingency funds and capital improvement funds. There is no money to replace fire engines, repair a leaking roof, or replace basic equipment required on the job. A fire engine costs approximately $650,000 without equipment on it. A ladder truck costs over $1 million. The District has five engines, a water tender, and a ladder truck. 

There is no money to train firefighters, volunteer or career. The Fire Chief has frozen three firefighter positions and is currently freezing three more. It costs approximately $1.5 million to operate a single station with career staff and AFD has three staffed stations. 

There is no cost-of-living adjustment attached to our special tax or benefit assessment. The fire department needs to put money aside for replacement of fire apparatus and to begin repairing broke items that have been deferred due to budget cuts. Examples of these deferments are deferred station maintenance, deferred apparatus repairs, deferred equipment repairs, and deferred safety gear purchases critical to our operational capability. 

AFD needs to restore the three vacant positions that have been frozen and the three positions that will be vacant and frozen come March 1, 2020. 

If Measure R fails

The requested increase is $1.9 million per year if Measure R passes. The increase is not $2.2 million, it is $1.9 million. Remember, AFD is passing through the 1997 special tax. We already pay the 1997 special tax and AFD can’t lose that revenue so they are adding the 1997 special tax to the new special tax amount for a total of $2.2 million. 

Without this additional revenue, the community WILL see a negative change. A fire station will close and more firefighters will be laid off. When I say more, I’m referring to one-third of the fire department’s staffing. 

Expect your insurance premiums to increase and be prepared for the fire department to cut services. When there is a fire, do not expect AFD to save all of your property because four firefighters isn’t sufficient to extinguish a working residential structure fire. 

It takes 14 firefighters to safely and efficiently extinguish a working residential structure fire. What does cut services look like? That decision will be left to the Fire District Board after a grueling series of meetings. Fire Departments are legally obligated to respond to, extinguish, investigate, and prevent fires. Everything else fire departments do is a bonus for the community. 

What if AFD stopped responding to medical aids, lift assists, animal rescues, power line down calls, fuel spills, and other incidents that can directly impact public safety. What if they had to start charging for these services? 

What if AFD stopped giving mutual aid and automatic aid to neighboring fire departments because they can’t justify sending their engine companies out of the fire district? 

They can provide these services now because they staff three stations but if one station closes, this will change. Will our neighboring agencies send AFD help if they don’t get help in return?

Total transparency

AFD’s Fire Chief and District Board could not be more transparent. AFD’s budget, employee contracts, and other financial documents are on AFD’s website. If you want to see where the tax revenue is being spent, check it out for yourself at arcatafire.org. 

Also, I want to mention that the county is not going to give AFD any more Measure Z money than what it currently gives. They do not support funding full-time firefighter positions. If you don’t like that decision then call your Humboldt County supervisor. I can promise you that your county Fire Chiefs have been fighting hard for the money they do receive and it’s inadequate. 

Again, I ask that you consider the risk of losing one-third of your current fire department and what that may look like for you, your family, and your property. I can tell you with certainty the results will be negative. I’ve been a public servant for 29 years and I can say this with certainty, more people will die, more property will be lost, and it will be a community decision. 

The highest level of expertise in emergency services in AFD is the Fire Chief. He is an honest, hardworking, and a steadfast professional. He ensures transparency and accountability of taxpayer dollars. 

There is a 10-year sunset on Measure R. If you don’t think he is doing what he said he will do then don’t support a renewal in 2030. I am confident in his abilities and his expertise. If you don’t support his recommended special tax amount there will be negative consequences to our community. The 6,000-plus students AFD protects in the schools will be impacted in a negative way. AFD’s ability to be proactive with school safety will be reduced significantly. Your fire department is an essential service! I strongly encourage you to support them so they can continue to serve all of us as they do today.

Essential professionals

I am curious why a fire district community of more than 37,000 residents expects their firefighters to provide service as a volunteer. Why does the community not expect this from law enforcement, doctors, and city or county administrators? Why doesn’t the community demand free water, sewer, garbage service, and road repair? 

Firefighters are every bit, if not more essential to a community’s infrastructure. They are trained and prepared to save lives in a ridiculous variety of extenuating circumstances. Firefighters are called for service when there is no one else to mitigate the emergency. There are experts in firefighting, animal rescue, medical emergencies, disaster response, technical rescue, hazmat, active shooter response, and a lot of other specialized emergencies. It takes an entire 30-year career before a firefighter begins to have strong confidence in all that is required of them. 

Every time we reset the clock when someone leaves AFD, we start over and lose that experience firefighter. AFD firefighters are committed to excellence and they take their responsibility very serious. I would appreciate if our community would show them the support they deserve and quit asking them to work free.

Unhelpful misinformation

One final thing Mr. Driscoll and Mr. Sawatzky, please do research next time before you throw out random data and suggestions. 

I used to look at Humboldt County Taxpayers League for insight on proposed taxes. Now that I believe your research to be lacking, I will do more research on my own in order to make a more informed decision. 

Now I know why fire departments have difficulty educating the public. When people spread inaccurate information, it becomes fact for some. 

Next time compare fire apples to fire apples.

Sean Campbell is an Arcata Fire Protection District battalion commander. McKinleyville resident and proud public servant.

 







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