Fire districts seek to combine staff
In the wee hours of March 20, a Nevada City fire engine was out the door and at the corner of North Pine and Commercial streets in less than three minutes – in time to see the city’s devastating fire in its early stages.
Flames destroyed the building, but the initial response was credited with limiting damage in the historic downtown district.
“That was a lucky night to have people there,” said Nevada City Fire Chief Greg Wasley, referring to the two overnight volunteers who staffed the engine.
Two firefighters are needed to operate an engine, and it takes six firefighters to staff an engine at all hours, seven days a week. So coverage at the Nevada City station, like many that rely on volunteers, is sporadic.
But a plan to change that was in the works well before the fire.
Three fire districts – Nevada City, 49er and Nevada County Consolidated – had been hashing over an idea that would bring around-the-clock staffing to their string of stations along the Golden Center Freeway.
The plan was laid out in a Feb. 25 letter from the Consolidated board of directors to Nevada City City Manager Beryl Robinson.
“I feel it is time to take a very close look at this concept,” Consolidated Chief Tim Fike said in the letter. “The parochial days of firefighting are over, as are the days of having 50 volunteers to respond to a limited number of calls.”
Wasley also likes the idea, but said details need to be worked out.
As for 49er Chief Dan Kopp: “I don’t see any drawbacks to it. I see it as the best of all worlds.”
The chiefs say they aren’t proposing a merger. They predict cost savings and say each district would maintain its identity, governing board and pay scale.
Robinson declined comment, other than to say it’s on an upcoming City Council finance committee meeting agenda.
Nevada City Mayor Kerry Arnett said he wasn’t aware of the proposal, but said he’s open to discussion.
For Councilman David McKay, the idea surfaced after he proposed discussing a possible fire tax measure for the November ballot.
While the fire tax measure is on the agenda for the council’s Monday meeting, the co-staffing issue will likely change the complexion of those talks, McKay said. “I have no problems with whatever the needs are; I’m concerned with keeping it simple.”
A similar tax measure in 2000 – to add staff and equipment – failed, but McKay decided to revisit the issue in response to the downtown fire.
“It’s two years later. We have different needs; we’ve got more population,” he said.
Consolidated already has 24-hour engine staffing at its Station 85 on Nevada City Highway. Nevada City and 49er don’t.
Meanwhile, Nevada City and 49er have new stations, but Station 85 is on sinking land and has mold problems, Fike said.
Under the chiefs’ plan, Consolidated would leave Station 85 and perhaps sell it.
Four of its six firefighters and one engine would move to Nevada City’s station on Providence Mine Road. The other two would head to the 49er District, which is about to open its new station on Coyote Street near Highway 49.
Now, if 49er has an emergency at night, the lone firefighter assigned to the station must wait until a volunteer arrives before the engine can roll.
In Nevada City’s case, the station doesn’t always have overnight volunteers, or “sleepers,” as Wasley calls them.
Co-staffing is working at the Grass Valley fire station on Brighton Street, where Grass Valley and Consolidated firefighters respond to the same calls, most of which are medical emergencies, Fike said.
Consolidated and 49er were already in talks before Nevada City made the latest proposal.
Asked if Nevada County would continue to see fire departments joining resources, Fike said: “I’m not even going to predict it. I have no clue – one step at a time. My goal is to provide a better service.”
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