Several residents from around the county and representatives from one major employer in San Juan Bautista expressed concern over the direction county fire service could take Tuesday morning as the San Benito County supervisors reviewed proposals from the city of Hollister and Calfire for consolidated services.
After more than two hours of discussion and comments, the supervisors voted to seek out a two-year contract with the city of Hollister, with direction to bring back a plan for a permanent fire station in North County and a plan to provide better service in South County. The vote was unanimous.
The city of Hollister proposal calls for adding a fire station in North County and making use of up to 80 reserve or volunteer firefighters to man four stations in the county, including one that San Juan Bautista’s city council has agreed to build with funding from the city. Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez stressed the importance of lowering response times in the plan to staff four fire stations. The Calfire proposal included three models from which the county could select for service. The informal proposal from Hollister estimated an annual cost of $1.1 million to provide fire service to the county. Calfire estimated the cost for county fire service would be $1.2 million, though the state offered two models that would increase the cost by $100,000 to 200,000.
Two representatives from Earthbound Farms spoke about the need for equipment that would be able to respond to their large headquarters in San Juan Valley, which employees 500 people. While engineer Richard Paulus expressed concern about the ability of a voluntary fire department to respond to the unique needs of the large agricultural packaging plant, Lisette Knight, the permit compliance coordinator, said her concern is having a fire prevention specialist who can work closely with developers.
Knight noted that as Earthbound Farms moved through a recent building process, they did not have a “fire person on site providing support to planning and building” as they have in the past. She noted the company met all the requirements for the fire code, but having fire personnel on site would have been helpful.
“They can give a perspective from a tactical stand point,” she said.
Supervisors had eliminated a fire prevention person from their county fire budget several years back in order to save money in the contract with Calfire. Both proposals before the board Tuesday called for a fire prevention specialist who would be working with businesses or developers in the county.
Several residents from South County expressed concern that the use of Hollister and San Juan firefighters, with a heavy reliance on paid reserve and unpaid volunteer firefighters, would increase response times to rural parts of the county.
“I believe the response time will suffer because people from Hollister won’t know where things are,” said Paul Wattis, a rural resident. “Why would we give money to an agency that has not been fiscally responsible?”
He suggested making monthly payments of $100,000 to the city for service rather than paying it out all at once.
“That way they can’t get that far into your pocket,” he said.
Supervisor Margie Barrios requested the contract include a requirement for firefighters to receive geographical information system training so they will be better equipped to find far-flung properties in the county.
Supervisor Robert Rivas again expressed concern about the use of volunteer firefighters to increase the staff. He said as a volunteer firefighter he often could not respond to calls that conflicted with his full-time job, an issue he worries will come up with reliance on so many volunteers.
Georgeanne Gularte, a planning commission in San Juan Bautista, spoke about the long history of the volunteer fire department in the city.
“In San Juan Bautista the word volunteer means service,” Gularte said. “There have been 145 years of firemen and women. They are committed, trained and they are there to do what they say they are going to do.”
Look back for more on supervisors’ comments from the meeting in Friday’s edition of the Free Lance.