Santa Paula Times

Firefighters exit a building during a training excercise

Funding gap threatens five full-time grant funded SPFD firefighters

June 06, 2014
Santa Paula News

Nick Bacigalupo is responding to a different alarm: the Santa Paula Firefighter has made several appearances before the City Council to urge them to find a revenue source for what appears will be an interruption in the funding flow for the federal SAFER program, which has added five firefighters to the short-staffed SPFD.

The two-year Department of Homeland Security grant, approximately $826,000, was accepted by the city in June 2012. Although assured by elected officials that the city will make the cut for another two-year grant, there will likely be a funding gap of about $140,000 created when the grant expires in September. 

Even if voters pass a 1 percent sales tax increase in November, an estimated $1.62 million to be split 50 percent police, 25 percent fire and roads; the new source of funding would not cover the SAFER gap.

Bacigalupo believes the funding gap of the grant, which unlike others does not require city-matching funds, should he backfilled to ensure that one-third of SPFD’s full-time firefighters staff stay on duty.

It is anticipated grant funding would start flowing again after a 3 or 4-month dry spell, which the city would have to cover.

At the June 2 meeting Bacigalupo told the council that per the city’s 2014-2015 preliminary budget, “Revenues are up and reserves are growing... and I want to point out the fire department is in dire need of money,” to keep SAFER firefighters on board. 

Although some past council comments were critical of grants, “They have kept our department afloat,” over the past 10 to 15 years by providing equipment and other needs.

Fire engineers and captains are nearing retirement and will have to be replaced by experienced people the SAFER grant is providing; the department has “saved (structures) with more efficiency and less dollar loss” due to the added firefighters.

If those hired by the SAFER grant are lost, Bacigalupo said the effect will be felt even by those out of town: “We all know the positive aspects of mutual aid,” but those who are called upon expect a like response when needed, “or risk losing it... “

During a recent interview, longtime SPFD Captain Jerry Byrum noted the call volume of the department “Goes up every year consistently,” with 2,486 responses in 2013 for the city of about 30,000 residents.

“Typically, on average about 70 percent are medical calls,” which still require a full engine company to respond in order to “Keep the crew together in case we have to turn around and go to a fire.”

Unlike private ambulances, the SPFD is not paid for their service.

“Most importantly,” said Bacigalupo, “90 percent of the time we arrive first,” on a medical call as there are only two private ambulances that serve the Santa Clara River Valley between Piru and Ventura, sources of aid that are easily delayed due to call volume.

Ventura County only has about 20 ambulances that respond to 911 emergency calls.

Byrum said the SPFD not only handles fire and medical response - including to crime scenes - but also handles hazardous material responses, conducts fire inspections, keeps track of those storing and selling hazardous materials and offers fire prevention programs for groups and schools, among other duties.

“A lot of different things we are doing are not perhaps thought of as being related to firefighting, but we respond. And the minimum staffing we have currently is the bare minimum to mitigate those issues we are up against.”

Firefighter Reserves are a resource that Byrum said do a “Wonderful job,” but they often move on to full-time positions or are unable to devote more time than the minimum required to retain their status.

Those hired under the SAFER grant undergo the rigorous Joint Apprenticeship Committee (JAC) training program, which requires careful tracking and documenting.

Byrum said the city’s SAFER firefighters have clocked more than 1,700 hours of supplemental training since February 2013; the program offers training that can be done on duty as well as careful documentation of what was learned during actual incidents.

Apprentice firefighters learn about incident command, advanced rescue techniques, aircraft firefights, building and construction code enforcement and how to handle a wide variety of firefighting scenarios in JAC’s 29 areas of study.

Said Byrum, “There’s never a wasted moment, there’s always something going on for these individuals... “

And for the city: for every hour of JAC training logged the city receives $3, revenue that quickly builds as Byrum said about 30 hours a month of training per SAFER firefighter is being logged.

In addition, “Not a moment goes by that we can’t use something for a training opportunity... and the ability to make that training stick because they are here as full-time firefighters.”

Byrum said a good example of the effectiveness of the SAFER grant and JAC training was evident at the early April fire at a Santa Paula-Ojai Road strip mall, a 2-alarm fire that was knocked down before destroying all the shops in the complex.

Byrum said the incident demonstrated the “cohesiveness, the consistency based on the fact that the crew, captain, engineer and firefighter, work together and know what to expect from one another,” from the moment the engine pulled up to the scene.

“It’s like clockwork,” the result of working and training together 10 days a month, 24 hours a day.

Before SAFER, “we were working with 8 to 10 different reserves every month, with varying degrees of knowledge of skill... with SAFER you know when you come to work in the morning the person knows his job, he’s trained, doing training all the time keeping up on the current issues of the city and the department. They’re connected... “

With SAFER the SPFD has attained a remarkable standard for initial response by attaining a 2 minute 25 second timeline for being set up on scene and ready to turn the water on the fire.

The national standard, said Byrum, is 3 minutes and 15 seconds.

At the strip mall fire he said after arriving on the scene it took the SPFD just 1 minute and 25 seconds to turn water on the blaze.

“If a firefighter has to stop and ask questions it slows the whole process,” said Engineer Matt Lindsay. “Efficiency speaks for itself,” in incidents such as the strip mall fire.

Bacigalupo said another advantage was that SPFD had inspected the businesses at the strip mall in the past and were aware of the layout and protections.

Byrum noted that it is second nature of firefighters to look at every building from a firefighting viewpoint: “We’re always doing the ‘what ifs?’ of places, get in our mind a mental picture... recognition prime decision-making (RPD) dates back to the military that determined if you can visualize something you will be better prepared,” to make split second decisions in a real emergency.

And, he added, “99.999 percent make the right decision based on RPD...” Overall, Byrum said, “Our main focus is the citizens of Santa Paula and providing the best fire protection we can provide with what the city gives us.”