Don’t have a fire after 5
When 5 p.m. arrives, Nevada City’s full-time firefighters at the Providence Mine Road station lock the doors and head home.
Volunteers might show up to work throughout the night, but they might not. They have that option.
Now the department wants to assure ’round-the-clock coverage by hiring one more full-timers.
Four other districts want more paid help, another wants upgraded equipment, and their requests are on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Besides Nevada City, the Nevada County Consolidated, 49er, Ophir Hill, Higgins Area and Rough and Ready fire districts are seeking voter-approved funding.
For most, their arguments come from the same template: Volunteerism is down, populations are growing, and funding levels aren’t keeping pace.
A seventh district, Penn Valley’s, is asking voters for permission to spend the money it already collects. Voters there passed a similar four-year measure in 1998, which expired last summer.
In Nevada City, Chief Greg Wasley said the devastating Elks Building fire last spring might have been worse and spread to surrounding buildings if volunteers weren’t on duty that night.
It’s perhaps Wasley’s biggest argument for Measure K, which seeks to raise the annual residential tax from $12 to $36.
“We need the paid staff because we don’t have the volunteers,” he said.
At least a couple of business owners say the measure would place an unfair burden on commercial properties. It calls for an annual increase of $100 to $500, depending on a business’ square footage.
Allan Rogers, owner of Rogers Picture Framing on Spring Street, doesn’t mind the proposed residential hike. But, he said, “They always seem to think because you have a commercial building they can asses you more, in my opinion.”
He also dismisses the Elks fire as an example of needing 24-hour fire protection because several fire agencies eventually showed up. “No matter what, it’s going to get that response,” he said.
Nevada City has 17 volunteer firefighters, down from 27 in 1999, and volunteers are working less, according to department figures. Twenty-six percent of shifts are getting covered this year, down from 60 percent in 2000. This coincides with an increase in emergency calls, from 360 in 1999 to 563 in 2001. Through September, the department had 377 calls this year.
Wasley and other fire chiefs see similar reasons for the decline in volunteers. More people work out of town, making them unavailable for daytime emergencies. Two-income families are the norm, and they’re simply busier.
“The volunteers, even though they’re the vital part and backbone of the fire department, their reliability and numbers are dwindling,” said Higgins Area Chief Frank Rowe, whose district, like Nevada City’s, seeks to triple the annual residential tax.
Higgins’ voters passed the current tax in 1980. The annual call volume has gone from less than 100 to more than 600 since then as the population has grown. The district wants 24/7 staffing at two of its three stations, which are on Dog Bar and McCourtney roads; its main station, on Combie Road, already has such staffing.
It generally takes four firefighters to cover a station all day, all week. The Nevada City area’s 49er Fire Protection District has at least one firefighter at night. If there’s a fire call, the single firefighter must wait for a volunteer to arrive before driving the engine to an emergency.
The district’s Measure F seeks funding for two-person staffing year-round.
“Fire doubles itself every minute, and people die within six minutes, so how dire is it? It could be extremely dire,” 49er Battalion Chief David Ray said.
The district also wants year-round, 10 hour-a-day staffing at its Quaker Hill Cross Road station.
Officials say the districts aren’t trying to capitalize on the increased popularity of firefighters since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The heroes were in New York,” said Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Chief Tim Fike, whose district is also asking for more funds. “This is a timing issue that is basically beyond our control, and it had nothing to do with the events in New York. We have to get this passed or the public is going to suffer big time.”
Many districts were formed in the 1950s, and all have seen growth at the same time, Fike said. Before he became Nevada County Consolidated’s chief, fierce debate preceded an assessment passed in 1997. The measure included a 10-year sunset clause, and Fike said Measure G’s passage is needed to improve service and long-range planning. If it’s rejected, he said, nine layoffs and two station closures loom.
Ophir Hill firefighters want passage of Measure J to hire two full-time firefighters, allowing 24/7 staffing.
Rough and Ready’s all-volunteer district is seeking no full-time help and says its 16 volunteers are enough. But the district wants Measure I passed to replace worn equipment in upcoming years.
“We pretty much have everything that is mandated,” Capt. Monty Wright said. But “as things wear out, we’re mandated to replace it.”
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