Sean Campbell: Why is my fire station closed? It’s complicated, and yet simple

If you have not noticed the rotational fire station closures occurring at the Arcata, Mad River, and McKinleyville Fire Stations, you are likely taking the shelter-in-place order to an extreme level. 

Most community members have probably noticed a sign in the window of their closest fire station indicating the station is closed due to budget cuts. The three fire stations, operated under control of the Arcata Fire District, are being closed on a rotational plan. 

As I write this, the Mad River Station is closed. Next week the Arcata Station will close and then the McKinleyville Station. Only one of the three stations are closed at a time with each of the two stations being staffed by a minimum of two firefighters.

The Arcata Fire District has received some questions about why this is occurring, and there have been some false rumors floating around in certain communities about station closures being conducted to punish the community for not supporting Measure R during the March election. 

Please allow me to set the record straight: the rotating station closures are not punishment for lack of supporting Measure R. 

We don’t want to close any fire station, but were forced to do so because we do not have the revenue to continue staffing three stations. Before I explain about the station rotational closures, I am going to share some facts that led to where we are today. I believe these facts are pertinent to the discussion.

Historical staffing changes

One of the points made many times during the Measure R public education presentations was the fact that failure to pass Measure R would result in the closure of a fire station. Let me provide a little history about how the District has been staffing fire stations since the early 1990s. 

During the early 1990s, stations were staffed with one firefighter. The Arcata Fire District’s administration recognized the ineffectiveness of staffing a fire engine with one firefighter and tried a variety of ways to augment staffing. 

When I started as a volunteer firefighter with Arcata Fire District in 1991, the Mad River station and the McKinleyville station each had one firefighter providing service to the community. The Arcata station was staffed on a volunteer basis with a volunteer resident firefighter who lived at the station. This position was called the “sleeper.” The sleeper lived at the fire station rent-free and was tasked with cleaning the station, maintaining security, and being available for nighttime calls. If a fire call came during the night, and the sleeper was available, they would ready the fire engine and wait for at least two other volunteers to arrive before leaving for the fire. This process averaged a response time of 8 to 12 minutes. 

The sleeper program worked for a long time; however, there were plenty of times when the Arcata Volunteer Firefighter’s Association and Arcata Fire District were unable to find a volunteer that was willing to live in the fire station. The sleeper position was vacant numerous times during my tenure here. 

Even though the Arcata Fire District and Volunteer Firefighters Association offered free rent, they struggled to maintain the sleeper program. In the early 1990s, the Arcata Fire District tried augmenting staffing by starting a “Part-Time-Program” that allowed volunteers to be paid $100 to work a 24-hour shift with the on-duty career firefighter. This program immediately stopped when the District learned it was violating the Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) and creating unemployment liability. 

In 2005, the staffing model changed again, when a large commercial fire occurred in the Humboldt State University Campus Apartments. I was the firefighter on duty that day when we were dispatched to a working multi-family residential structure fire in a multi-story residential dwelling. 

I was on the engine, by myself, and I did my best to give a report on conditions, get all my firefighter equipment together, pull hose lines, connect the fire engine to a fire hydrant, work my way through the smoke and heat on multiple floors just to try and find the fire and attempt extinguishment. It was approximately 12 to 15 minutes from time of call to water on the fire. It takes time to complete all of those tasks by yourself. 

Chief McFarland was the Duty Chief that day. He had just recently been hired as the Fire Chief of Arcata Fire District. Side note, Chief McFarland started his fire service career as a volunteer with Arcata. Chief McFarland arrived and saw a single firefighter trying to extinguish a multi-story apartment complex fire, with multiple units burning, by himself. 

I fought that fire for a long time by myself and it kicked my butt. Eventually, volunteers began arriving and we extinguished the fire but there was a lot of damage. 

Following that fire, Chief McFarland recognized the extremely dangerous plan the District was operating under with one firefighter on a fire engine. He immediately moved the career firefighter from the McKinleyville station to the Mad River station, resulting in a two-person engine company and only one station being staffed. 

The McKinleyville Fire Station became a volunteer fire station operating the same as Arcata station. The community of McKinleyville was very upset about the decision to remove staff from the McKinleyville station.

Arcata Fire District Funding Measure Community Meeting
Click here to respond to a survey for community members that are interested in meeting regarding the proposed November 2020 funding measure for the Arcata Fire District.
The district is trying to find the best time to hold a Zoom meeting to set up a citizens' support network for the proposed measure. The purpose of this meeting is to gather concerned citizens to assist with getting the word out about the campaign.
The survey responses are confidential and when the meeting time is chosen, a notification will be made to the community with the zoom meeting information.

Benefit Assessment 2006 and FEMA grants bring increased staffing

Chief McFarland asked the Arcata Fire District Board to attempt a funding measure in order to increase revenues for additional staffing. One of the primary reasons for his request was the rapidly increasing demand for service from the public. The District was also beginning to experience budget issues with increasing expenses and stagnant revenues. 

The 2006 funding measure passed, allowing additional firefighters to be hired. The updated staffing included two firefighter’s on-duty every day, 24/7 at both Mad River and McKinleyville fire stations. The Arcata station remained unstaffed but operated using volunteer response. 

The District made another attempt to augment career staff with volunteers by starting a Reserve Firefighter Program around 2007. This program was similar to the “Part-Time-Program” mentioned earlier but complied with FLSA law.  The District could not pay volunteers to work shifts without creating liability under certain laws, but they could reimburse volunteers for out-of-pocket expenses encumbered working a 24-hour shift. 

Volunteers began working shifts and they were reimbursed for various out-of-pocket expenses. The cost of uniform, boots, fuel, meals, etc., are example of the expenses encumbered by volunteers working a 24-hour shift. The reserves were limited to the number of shifts they could work each month because they could only be reimbursed for actual expenses. 

This program terminated around 2015 when the District began experiencing financial hardships. The District applied for and received a SAFER Volunteer Recruitment and Retention grant around 2012. This grant provided almost $500,000 in funding to improve recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. 

The District built an amazing recruitment and retention program, which resulted in approximately 50 new volunteer firefighter applications each year. 

Unfortunately, retention never worked out and the District continued averaging approximately 1.4 years from each volunteer before being hired by another fire agency or resigning due to extensive time requirements. 

The District has seen more than 200 volunteer firefighters come and go in the last 16 years. 

In 2012, the District received a Federal Staffing Grant through FEMA. This grant paid for three full-time firefighters and covered 100 percent of the salary and benefit cost for each firefighter. The FEMA SAFER grant was renewed in 2015 and increased staffing by an additional three firefighters, totaling six grant-funded firefighters. The grants covered 100 percent of salary and benefits. 

The FEMA SAFER Grant staffing resulted in all three stations being staffed with two firefighters 24/7/365. This was the first time in history all three stations in the Arcata Fire District were staffed with full-time career firefighters. 

The sleeper program terminated in 2012 when the Arcata station became staffed by full-time career firefighters. The sleeper program had also been failing to meet its goals of augmenting staffing during the night. Even though there were volunteers living in the station, they were rarely available for different reasons. 

One of the requirements from FEMA when you accept SAFER funding for career firefighters is you must implement a plan to try and keep the firefighters once the grant expires. When the FEMA SAFER Grant funding expired, the District maintained the staffing level with three firefighter positions being cut due to cost. 

The District used reserves to cover the cost of three firefighters and they attempted another funding measure in 2015 to provide permanent funding to keep these positions. Again, the District had an obligation to the Federal Government to do everything in its power to maintain the staffing that was provided through the grants. 

The funding measure of 2015 failed to garner two-thirds voter approval, and was defeated. The District looked at trying to obtain another FEMA SAFER grant for staffing but learned the rules had changed. The new grant guidelines no longer paid 100 percent of salary and benefits. The new guidelines required the District to pay 65 percent of the position costs. This was not possible due to lack of funding.

Measure R preparation

The Arcata Fire District Board approved placement of a special tax on the March ballot. The Measure required two-thirds voter approval but only received 63.7 percent. Prior to the March election, the Arcata Fire District worked very hard to share facts with the community about why this funding was necessary and what would happen if Measure R failed. 

The District held six town hall meetings with locations throughout the District in Bayside, Manila, Arcata and McKinleyville. Social media was used extensively to share information and facts about the Arcata Fire District. 

Letters were sent to the North Coast Journal, Times-Standard, and Mad River Union. There were numerous interviews with local news and press releases sent to all media sources. 

Off-duty firefighters, their family members, District board members, and friends walked through neighborhoods sharing information door-to-door. The Fire Chief, District board members, and I went to countless service clubs and community groups to share information about the State of the Arcata Fire District and the need to increase revenues. 

All of the discussions included a transparent plan to decrease staffing and close a fire station in the event Measure R failed to garner voter approval. I am the first to admit that we made some mistakes in our attempt to educate the public and get facts out in a timely manner. 

I attribute these failures to the fact that all of us are firefighters and not specialists in managing an educational campaign. 

The second failure was our lack of ability to recognize how much time it takes to do all of this work. Staffing levels were already dropping as firefighters were leaving the district to seek a more secure job. The lost positions were frozen due to impending layoffs. 

Even prior to the failure of Measure R, the District was operating with a bare-bones staffing. 

The District has no funding to use towards a robust public outreach and public education plan. We quickly found ourselves behind and we never caught up enough to educate everyone or do all of the things we wanted to do.

Measure R failure and the cuts

Following the March 2020 election, the Arcata Fire District learned it had not reached the two-thirds voter approval it was trying for. 

The District Board of Directors held a Board Meeting to discuss options for staffing reduction and station closure options. Both of these issues are extremely complex and require a process to determine a fair operational staffing plan. 

Employees of the Arcata Fire District have contracts that detail staffing levels, salaries, benefits and working conditions. The District Board and bargaining groups are required by law to negotiate changes in the contract. This process is called “Meet and Confer.” 

The Firefighters Union (Local 4981) can’t simply give themselves a raise without negotiating with the District Board. The District Board can’t cut positions without negotiating with Local 4981. Minimum staffing levels are covered in the Local 4981 contract thus requiring the District Board to negotiate changes in minimum staffing levels. 

This negotiation began almost immediately after Measure R failed. Local 4981 and the District Board made cuts to the Local 4981 contract, which resulted in elimination of regular overtime and changes to the minimum staffing level. This cut was a huge setback for years of progress made by Local 4981 and the fire district to ensure safe staffing levels for the community. 

Local 4981 and the District Board have worked very hard to ensure the community is protected through proper staffing with firefighters on duty and available 24/7/365. They have worked with the District to increase staffing over the years using a number of different plans. It is important for me to point out those firefighters on duty 24 hours a day, and in fire stations that are strategically located throughout the District, is the safest and most effective level of protection for our communities. There is no argument against this. 

The same argument holds for all essential service workers. When you need them, you need them NOW! 

If your sewer started backing up in your house, would you accept calling a volunteer plumber in hopes they are available to come and help you? There have been countless fires when volunteers and off-duty staff were not available. 

Relying solely on volunteers is not an effective operational plan when it is your house is on fire or you or someone you love has stopped breathing.

To be continued. Next week: rotational vs. permanent station closures and more.



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