Sean Campbell: Rotational vs. permanent fire station closures

Rotational vs. permanent station closures
(Second of two parts)

Why not just pick a station, close it, and move on? Well… it’s not that simple, folks. There are many factors to be considered by the District Board before any final decision is made. Let me share some of the decision factors with you.

Factor One. Greatest demand for service, potential loss from fire, call volume and economic impact are all issues that the Board has to consider when deciding on a permanent closure. 

Arcata is the busiest, followed by McKinleyville, with Mad River station having the lowest call volume. 

Together, all three stations respond to over 3,300 calls per year. Prior to staffing the Arcata Station, the District had a poor save record for large fires in the downtown Arcata area. 

For example: Barnes Drugs (West Plaza), Hensel’s Hardware, Feuerwerker Building, St. Mary’s Church, Tea Garden Apartments, 16th and J street Multi-Family Unit, and NEC (three buildings). These losses resulted in vacant lots for many years, loss of revenue, lost tax base, lost jobs and lost services. 

The Board must consider all of these economic impacts. Since the Arcata Station was staffed in 2015, the save value has been tremendous. 

For example: Presbyterian Church (11th and G streets), Arcata Liquors (North Plaza), Big Blue (East Plaza), Arcata Veterans Memorial Building, Robert Goodman Winery, Angels of Hope and Tomo’s Sushi/Hotel Arcata. 

The value of rapid response and quick fire extinguishment is how a fire district justifies using tax money for staffing and stations. 

In 2019, there were 15 working structure fires in the Arcata Fire District. The total value of buildings and property involved was $35.1 million. 

The value saved was $32.8 million. That amount is equivalent to eight years of budget for Arcata Fire District. 

As a taxpayer myself, I find that impressive and I am willing to spend money to save my community. That doesn’t even include the economic impact that was saved. Tomo was out of business for over six months after their “small fire.” 

The Big Blue fire was contained quickly and 26 businesses operating in that section of the plaza sustained significant impacts with some going out of business. 

Had these fires been worse, the loss would have been worse. Fire grows extremely fast, and the heat release rate from a fire is much greater today in comparison to 20 years ago. 

If you want to understand what I am talking about, watch the Underwriters Laboratory video showing a comparison of old vs. new fuels burning in a residential setting. Search for UL Legacy vs Modern Time to Flashover in your favorite browser.

Factor Two. Assessed Value: Should protection of assessed value be used in determining which stations closes? Arcata has the highest assessed value to protect. McKinleyville has the second highest assessed value.  

All three stations protect more than $5 billion in assessed property value. By that argument, maybe the District should staff Arcata and Mad River stations because they protect the area of highest assessed value.

Help the Friends of Arcata Fire inform the community about funding and the November ballot measure

Factor Three. Operational cost per station: The Arcata Station is owned by the Arcata Volunteer Firefighters Association and rented to the Arcata Fire District at a cost of $96,000 per year.  

In order to be fully transparent, the $96,000 in rent paid by the District is used to pay down loans obtained by the Volunteer Firefighter’s Association. 

The loans were used for the renovation of the Arcata Station and the McKinleyville Station.  The Arcata Fire District did not use tax dollars to pay for the renovations. 

Prior to the station renovations, the District used to pay approximately $3,800/month in rent to the Arcata Volunteer Association. The current amount paid in rent, $8,000/month, is below fair market value for a large commercial property located in downtown Arcata. 

Based on the annual rent expense, the Arcata station is by far, the most expensive station to operate. The Volunteer Firefighters Association spent more than 28 years fundraising and seeking donations to build a new fire station in Arcata. 

The Orvamae Emmerson Endowment Fund donated $1.3 million to the project and Lily Lucchesi donated $250,000. The volunteers spent years working with Arcata Sunrise Rotary and raising more than $291,000 doing joint fundraisers. 

In addition to all of these generous commitments, the volunteer firefighters raised another $815,000 on their own doing various fundraisers. The project changed numerous times and the final project resulted in renovation of the Arcata station and McKinleyville station. 

The old plan to build a new fire station on Sunset Avenue continued to exceed funding sources. The cost of a new station on Sunset was estimated at $8 to $10 million. The volunteers had just under $3 million for the project. 

The renovations for the Arcata and McKinleyville stations cost $4.3 million, which resulted in the Arcata Volunteer Firefighters Association taking out a loan for $1.7 million. 

If the District Board decides to unstaff Arcata and save $96,000 in rent, the volunteers would default on their loan and the bank would foreclose on the station. 

Given the rising cost of commercial real estate, the District would likely never operate a fire station out of downtown Arcata again. Once the station is gone, it would likely be gone forever. 

The Arcata station is placed perfectly for strategic response coverage. The Mad River and McKinleyville stations are owned by the Arcata Fire District and paid in full. Operating out of these stations cost $96,000 less than the Arcata Station.  

The amount of money spent in rent each year would fully staff a firefighter and provide thousands of dollars for operational expenses. 

The public was fine operating the Arcata Station as a volunteer station since pre-2012. Would the Arcata residents still accept this staffing model?

• Factor Four. Call volume - Prior to the start of the Arcata and McKinleyville fire station renovations, the District conducted a study to see where calls dropped in comparison to where stations are located. 

Search for the story titled, “Arcata Fire’s Long-Planned Sunset Station Abandoned.” This story, featured in the Mad River Union, was written in November 2013. 

Back to the study…the area around the Arcata Plaza looked like a volcano when the calls were mapped using red dots for each call location. 

McKinleyville also had large clusters near the town center. Mad River saw most calls in the Valley West area but also had clusters in the rural areas. 

Each fire station is spaced approximately five minutes apart from each other, which is critical! 

The results demonstrated that the fire stations are located exactly where they need to be. I guess those Old Timer Firefighters knew what they were doing when they placed the stations in the 1940s and ’50s. 

A recent fire, from May 2020, was the Angels of Hope fire that started in a commercial vehicle outside of the business. 

The fire spread from the vehicle to the building very quickly and thankfully, the Arcata station was staffed and the engine arrived within two minutes and controlled the fire.

 The second engine arrived from McKinleyville nine minutes later. 

That is too long to wait for help from your second engine. It is critical that engines arrive within four to five minutes of each other. There are too many things for two firefighters to do and they need immediate help. 

Waiting nine minutes for a second engine is going to burn us… no pun intended.

• Factor Five. Firefighter Safety and OSHA. Maybe the District Board should consider placing all four firefighters on duty at the Mad River station, which is located dead center of the District. From this location, firefighters can respond to McKinleyville and Arcata within five minutes. Staffing would be adequate to begin a firefight without waiting for a second engine. 

Most people in the community probably do not know this, but there is an OSHA Law called two-in/two-out that requires fire departments to have four firefighters on scene before they can initiate an interior fire attack. This is why the national standard is four firefighters per engine. 

The safest, most efficient firefighting plan would be to place all four on-duty firefighters at the same station, on the same engine. The down side of this plan is call volume. 

Arcata Fire District runs about 10 calls per day. Approximately 40 percent of the time we have an engine on a call, a second 911 call comes in. 

If we placed all four firefighters on the same engine in the center of the District, there would be many unanswered calls. The plus side is firefighter safety and the ability to fight fire immediately without having to wait for another engine.

Is your head spinning yet?

• Factor Six. Fairness. If the District rotates station closures, every taxpayer in the District gets the same level of service. Why should taxpayers in Mad River Station response area pay the same as Arcata and McKinleyville but have their station closed? 

You can play this out with every station. This is the option the District Board chose and I fully support their decision. This option creates equality for all of our communities and taxpayers.

I am impressed if you made it through this entire article without pulling hair from your head. If you did make it to the end of my story, thank you!  

Thank you for taking the time to educate yourself and not throw random uneducated accusations at your Fire District. 

Our District Board members volunteer their time to serve your community. Our firefighters, career and volunteer, are professionals. All of us take great pride in giving our communities the best possible service for the lowest cost. 

Nothing in this world is free, and you get what you pay for. Without an increase in revenue through a funding measure being approved by the taxpayers, you will receive a lower level of service. We want to serve you in a professional manner, using highly trained firefighters, and in the most economical manner. 

The District has increased career staff over the past 14 years because there is a demand for service from the communities we protect. The addition of staff is expensive but it also provides for a much safer community when there is an emergency. 

I hope you continue to stay healthy and remain fire safe. As always, please call Chief McDonald or myself, Sean Campbell, if you ever have a question, complaint or compliment. We will do our best to serve you. Stay safe! (707) 825-2000.

Sean Campbell is a Battalion Chief with the Arcata Fire District and has 30 years in the fire service. He is a certified Chief Fire Officer through the State Fire Marshal’s Office and has been serving our community as a firefighter, coach and volunteer since 1990.

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