At this point, I would like to make it quite clear that, regardless of the Board’s decision, CAL FIRE will remain a major provider of fire protection in San Benito County. It will continue to staff the Fairview Station, the three stations in South County during the fire season, and the CAL FIRE Airbase at the Hollister Airport. The county will also maintain mutual aid agreements with southern Santa Clara County for rural fire assistance in northern San Benito County on a year-round basis.
Understanding how we got to this point is important. The state of California is making a concerted effort to shift funding responsibilities for services to the local level. Last October, CAL FIRE announced to the County Board of Supervisors that it would “…no longer be willing to provide fire protection services without major changes.” They were clear during budget hearings that they wanted more money and requested that our local agencies needed to pay for fire protection in state response areas. Additionally, they expressed a desire to take over control of the San Juan Bautista Fire Department. The board took these announcements very seriously, and began evaluating its options. This is an extremely complex issue, which involves the three independent entities providing fire protection services in San Benito County: CAL FIRE, the City of Hollister, and the City of San Juan Bautista. In response, the Board created an ad-hoc committee, comprised of Supervisor Muenzer and myself, to work with staff to evaluate proposals from the City of Hollister and CAL FIRE. This entailed countless meetings and many hours of fact-finding by all involved.
The City of Hollister’s proposal calls for a three-man engine company dedicated for the county out of the Union Road station, with a complement of 40 volunteer firefighters out of Hollister verses only 25 by Cal Fire. Hollister already responds to most, “fire calls” in the county, and its stations are well situated to respond to most of the populous areas. This would add a higher level of protection for the County as well as for the City of Hollister. The Hollister and San Juan Bautista volunteer firefighters are committed to working together to standardize their training programs and equipment, which would foster true fire service consolidation in the future.
One question of concern is the long-term viability of the Hollister proposal given the city’s grave financial issues and the uncertainty of whether the upcoming sales tax measure will be extended by the voters. If Measure T passes, Hollister will have nine professional firefighters on duty on three engine companies. If the measure fails, there would still be six or seven professional firefighters on duty on three engine companies. Under either scenario, we would still be able to utilize the complement of volunteers from the City of Hollister and San Juan Bautista.
CAL FIRE’s proposal is a bit more complex, as there are three options to evaluate, and they are notably all more expensive than the Hollister proposal. Option #1 is to maintain its current program, but at a substantially higher cost ($400,000 more than what the County is currently paying for two firefighters out of the Fairview station).
Option #2 costs less than #1, staffing two stations with two firefighters each at Fairview Road and Bear Valley. However, the Bear Valley station is so far removed that it would not increase the number of firefighters in the “Local Response Area,” where 95% of all fire calls occur.
Option #3 is identical to Option #2, except that, instead of Bear Valley, the second station would be located in San Juan Bautista or the Rancho Larios sub-division. Unfortunately, CAL FIRE would also like to take control of the San Juan Bautista Fire Department, which the City of San Juan Bautista opposes. Additionally, CAL FIRE has not been specific in their proposal as to who would build the new station and how it would be funded.
Besides evaluating the cost comparisons and overall fire protection services, a primary consideration for me is local accountability. CAL FIRE’s present performance as a contract provider for the County has had a history of lack of responsiveness to our local needs. CAL FIRE has refused to submit and participate in the training standards the County has for emergency personnel through the emergency medical agency, leaving the county no way to verify the training and background of many current county volunteer firefighters. Even more troubling is that CAL FIRE unilaterally changed response maps without the approval of the county or its affected agencies, resulting in a serious breach of public safety. This is besides the problem of lack of interagency cooperation.
In conclusion, we need to move forward towards our goal to improve fire protection throughout the entire county by providing better training, faster responsiveness, putting more firefighters on scene, and doing so at less cost. As a resident, former firefighter, and current San Benito County supervisor, I care deeply about the safety of our community.
I have and always will strive to research all possible options in order to conscientiously and economically provide the best possible fire protection to the people of San Benito County.
Anthony Botelho, San Benito County Supervisor