Letters to the Editor about Measure R, February 19, 2020

The danger is real


Over 15 years ago, I was hunting in Colorado and staying in a small mining town called Red Cliff. When we came back at 11 a.m., we saw a major fire in this small town. It was being fought by one paid firefighter and one volunteer. It was huge. They were applying water from the only road in town to several structures. The problem was that there were only two firefighters and they had no way to assess the entire situation. When we arrived, I ran to the paid firefighter and told him he needed to come with me. I could see the area behind the buildings that were on fire and there was three story, wood shingle building that was against the mountain with the deck on fire. It could easily spread into a massive wildfire. He agreed and we rushed to pull another line around the back of the fire while the volunteer continued fighting the fire from the main street. 

Once we pulled the hose and it was filled with water, I was shocked at the weight. He ran up to me in his full fire gear and said we need to move the hose a few feet so he could get a better angle on the fire. We could barely move it. Fortunately, my hunting buddies were there and they assisted us. He asked me to kneel behind him so he could use my shoulder as a rest for the hose to assist him in quicker movement and placement of the water. As I hid behind him, with my head against his butt to protect me from the intense heat and flames, I heard the massive roar of the fire and yelled at him, “I don’t know what you get paid but it is not enough.” It took the Eagle Fire Department 25 minutes to get there because they were so far away. 

That is the day I was a firefighter for a half hour and my understanding of what a firefighter does and needs to do increased drastically. With just two of them, they could not properly assess the situation and they could not effectively fight the fire. Here is why I am writing this letter:

There are several things I knew before I had this experience because I was an insurance agent for 25 years at the time. While I don’t know a lot about fighting fires, I do know that fire spreads SO quickly it gives you little time to respond. In seconds a fire can go in to “flash,” which can consume everything. There is little one can do but just contain it. Fire increases exponentially so response time is critical. Being at many fires after the event, I was always amazed. My clients all said the same thing, “It happened so fast and took so much!” 

Here is what I learned from attending several of the Town Hall meetings hosted by the Arcata FD. Arcata has one of the largest fire districts in the County covering 62 square miles. It protects from Indianola Road and Manila, North to Clam Beach and East to Glendale. There are three stations that have two firefighters centrally located, one in McKinleyville and two in Arcata. If measure R does not pass, one station will be forced to close. By attending the meetings, I learned all of the details. Here are some highlights that you might not know. 

The Fire District receives $.06 per $100 property valuation from your property tax bill. The City of Arcata does not directly fund the Fire Department. The City of Arcata does pay the property tax bill and other assessments on the property they own just as any business does. Two funding measures are already in place and they were passed in 1996 and 2006. They are totally inadequate to meet the needs of 2019. Measure R will replace the 1996 special tax. For a single-family residence, it would be $118 per year to the existing $88 Benefit Assessment tax the voters approved in 2006. A rural residence would increase $192 per year and a mobile home in a park would pay $90 per year. 

People think Measure Z funds will continue to help but the reality is they do not. Here is what Measure Z did for AFD: Replaced 80 air packs and bottles, replaced full gear for 34 firefighters and paid $65,000 per year for 3 years for the dispatch fees. It also purchased a Regional Mobile Training Tower, which will be instrumental in training and keeping firefighters’ skills proficient. Nothing is guaranteed for any ongoing cost! 

AFD HAD a contingency fund and has depleted it to maintain current staff and equipment over the last few years. AFD has made several significant changes in their operations. The call volume has increased from 1232 in 1996 to over 3800 calls for 2019. Their work volume has increased by over 300 percent. With the medical aid calls being so significant, they have outfitted their pickup trucks with gear they need to go on a medical aid call and also back up equipment so they could go to a fire. That way they can start initial set up as they wait for a Fire Engine. By not taking a Fire Engine on those calls, they save thousands of miles on the wear and tear of the Fire Engine. Replacing a fire pickup truck costs $50,000 and a Fire Engine costs $750,000 or more. It costs just as much for one tire on a fire engine as it does for four tires on a fire pickup truck. Better gas mileage has helped offset some of the increased cost with this change but the cost of fuel has eaten up the savings. There are many more examples of cost cutting measures I learned about in the meetings but I cannot tell you about all of them. 

If measure R does not pass, one station will close. This will mean they will lose one-third of their staff which places the burden on the remaining two-thirds. My question to you is if your employer said they were cutting staff by one-third, would you be able to pick up the slack? How long would you be willing to do this? Could you take the increased stress? The estimated closing date of one fire station is July 1, 2020, when the fiscal year starts. The date may be sooner if AFD loses more employees!

The AFD has become a training ground for beginning firefighters so AFD invests the time and money training them and then many chose to move on. Measure R has a Sunset Clause in it so even if it passes, it will only be there for 10 years. Would you work for a business that you know may not be able to hire you 10 years from now? When a firefighter leaves, he/she not only takes the experience and knowledge of our area but their time spent here counts towards the PERS retirement. Let’s use the example of a firefighter who works 10 years for AFD then moves on to another area. If they work for another 20 years, they will have 30 years and AFD will have to fund third of their retirement. If the pay is higher at another Fire Department (which in most cases it is), the amount AFD is required to pay by PERS is also proportionately higher. The fixed costs from this increase each year and a contingency fund needs to be developed for this and other future costs like equipment replacement, injuries and unknown expenses. All of us have had unknown expenses and we wonder how we will pay for it. Few people have a sufficient contingency fund!

The starting wage for a beginning firefighter is $14.63 per hour. You can go to In-N-Out Burger and START at $15 per hour with no fire or EMT training. 

Transparent California lists the pay for the Fire Department. When people review it, they comment on the pay they have received. The average person works 2080 hours per year. Arcata FD works about 40 percent more hours, 2,920, trying to keep staffing at a minimum. They are already down three firefighter positions due to cost cutting measures with three more pending departures. Transparent California also requires that the prevailing wage paid to fire personnel who work wildfires be included so those numbers do not necessarily represent the actual pay. Would you be willing to work 40 percent more hours in your current job? Could you do your job if you also lost one-third of your fellow workers!

By going to the meetings, I learned how the mutual aid agreement works between all agencies. If there is a fire, surrounding Fire Departments provide assistance either at the scene or backup at their station for possible incoming calls. With Measure R not passing and losing a station, there is quite a dilemma. If you send help and then only one Fire Engine with two people will be left to cover 62 square miles.

Why does AFD go out on so many medical aid calls? Why don’t you leave it for the ambulance company? I found out there are two Ambulances to cover from Indianola North, Willow Creek East all the way to the Del Norte County line. AFD response time to the medical aid is quicker than the ambulance in 70 percent of the time. Sometimes AFD is the only one there because the ambulance crew is out on a call. If you need medical aid, wouldn’t you want the shortest time before help arrives? Wouldn’t you want someone to show up? Just imagine the dilemma it would place on the firefighters if they had to decide to go to a life-saving emergency OR a fire. Without proper staffing this is the type of decision that would have to be made.

AFD has the “Jaws of Life” that ambulance crews do not have and are not trained to use. AFD also inspects over 4,000 apartment units because Arcata is a college town. You can’t put a price on that!

AFD also provides many duties that others do not do, including “Lift Assists!" If a person falls down and no one is around to assist them in getting back up or the person there cannot do it by themselves, AFD responds. You do not want your loved one to remain on the floor, which creates many more medical issues. 

Then there is the big unknown! What will happen to your insurance? Being in the insurance business for almost 40 years I must admit, I do not have the answer. Since insurance companies rate based on the risk, if the risk increases the rates will probably follow. Any change would probably not be immediate. An increase in the Protection Class Rating from a 3 to a 4 or higher could happen if Measure R does not pass. Longer response times may cause more severe damage which in turn creates a higher loss ratio for a company. Eventually, it come down to you can pay me now or pay me later. Some companies have left the State or restricted their business. Competition is better for everyone. 

As I read the argument against Measure R in the voter information guide, I assume that the person/persons who wrote this did not know the FULL financial story, call volume (emergency and non-emergency) and cost saving measures already taken by AFD. I attended several meetings and learned more at each meeting. By comparing AFD to any other department, you need to know how those departments are funded and what assistance they receive from others sources. It is like comparing apples to oranges. 

Paul Nicholson

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Vote yes on Measure R

Neighbors in the Arcata Fire District, please VOTE YES on Measure R to preserve your current level of fire, rescue, and emergency medical services! I’ve served this community for 38+ years as a cop, police chief, emergency manager, and now an instructor in Active Shooter response. And since 2015, I’ve volunteered with AFD logistics and command post operations.

I’ve seen first-hand your firefighters battle intense wind-driven vegetation fires, saving the HSU Music Building, Arcata Hotel, Presbyterian Church, the entire east side of the Plaza and a McKinleyville apartment torched by a barricaded gunman. All required multiple AFD engines AND command officers to direct the response. I’ve learned that we have a reasonably-sized and competent staff doing their best with aging equipment and rising expenses that can’t keep up with 1997 funding levels.

Meanwhile, here’s what’s increasing: Calls for service. Dry vegetation fuels. High winds and temperatures. Wildland fire risk. Insurance ratings. Threats of violence and multi-casualty incidents. This is NOT the time to cut your fire/medical/rescue service by roughly one-third! We can wish that we had different means to sustainably fund our fire district, but AFD can’t make ends meet with bake sales and best intentions.

I have never written a letter before and I have nothing to gain; I will be paying more tax when Measure R passes. But I’m hopeful that you’ll consider our collective community risks, not just your own personal finances. When your neighbor calls 911, they need that response to be 100 percent, not 66 percent. 

Please be sure that AFD remains capable by voting YES on Measure R.

Thomas Dewey, retired HSU police chief/emergency manager, 2004-2011

Measure R inadequate

Measure R is meant to fund frozen and/or new positions for the Arcata Fire District. If passed by two thirds of voters, it would raise $1.9 (plus or minus) million dollars per year from added property taxes. The District has a deficit of $250,000 per year. All of the numbers we included in our opposition statement were received from and fact checked by Fire Chief Justin McDonald.

The reason Measure R is inadequate for addressing long-term solutions is that it simply fails to consider;

A. The use of the consolidated Arcata Fire Station could easily be used as an incident command training center for first responders, fire fighters and law enforcement.

B. The need to provide on-site housing for these trainees. Housing while training is a known hurdle for those committed to entering into this type of public service.

C. Developing a much-needed school would likely alleviate the need for as many fully funded positions and thus the added tax burden on those who least afford it.

To be clear, our position is to advocate for the use of on the job trainees not merely volunteers. These trainees would be at tiered levels and only put into situations they were trained for. The community service they would offer is significant and support personnel numbers would ultimately be higher. Graduates of such training would be eligible for a wide variety of employment throughout the county and the nation. 

Additionally, the consolidation of our various municipal dispatch systems into one county-wide system would solve multiple issues. Yes, there are upfront costs for upgrading that system, but such costs would be eligible for grant funding and not dependent on further burdening property owners and ultimately residents that currently rent.

Proponents of this measure point to the increase of calls without clarifying what the type of calls being responded to. That in itself makes it very difficult for voters to compare apples to apples. 

The Humboldt County Taxpayer League has and always will have ultimate respect for first responders and fire fighters. We also would like to see 21st century solutions developed for 21st century problems. Nearly tripling taxes on those of us who make this our home is just too much. We can do better.

 Uri Driscoll, president
Humboldt County Taxpayer League

Failure of Measure R will lengthen response

Arcata Fire district has been providing a broad level of professional services to the communities of Arcata, McKinleyville, Bayside, Manila and Jacoby Creek since 1884. However, your fire district is currently facing an obstacle that could greatly compromise this level of service. 

In the past three decades call numbers have increased at a rapid pace. Since 1997 emergency responses have nearly tripled. In 1997 the annual call volume reached 1,232 responses. Today, the annual call volume is 3,850 responses. In order to effectively accommodate this extreme growth in the community’s needs, the fire district has to grow with it. This means at a minimum it must maintain its current staffing. With your help in passing Measure R, Arcata Fire District can continue to maintain this community aid. This proposal would also maintain the current response time to your emergencies. 

It takes on average five minutes for an engine to be at your door. However if Measure R is unsuccessful it will mean the closing of one of the three strategically placed stations in the district. Located near Arcata Plaza, next to Mad River Hospital and across from Safeway in McKinleyville, these three stations are evenly spread to provide a rapid arrival. Unfortunately, with the shutdown of one of these stations, response times would increase dramatically. 

When someone stops breathing, lifesaving intervention must be implemented as soon as possible. Chances of survival decrease seven to 10 percent every minute. This is why it is crucial for your fire district to maintain its expedient responses to ensure the communities best chance of survival in these times of need. Fast response times are also important in the event of fires. A modern house fire can double in size every nine  to 13 seconds, resulting in extremely dangerous conditions for those inside. For this reason the district takes pride in arriving as fast as they do, helping prevent loss of life and the protection of property. 

If Measure R does not pass, the district will also be forced to terminate the positions of six firefighters. The national standard for the number of firefighters on an engine is four, the California state standard is three per engine. Due to current funding your district can only staff two firefighters per engine. The termination of six firefighters would decrease its ability to effectively manage your emergencies. 

The fire district cannot exist to protect the community without its support, please vote yes on Measure R this March to ensure that those who live in this beautiful community can rest at ease knowing Arcata Fire District has their backs.

Ruger West





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