Fire Staffing to get Boost in California

After nearly 18 months of budget-related closures, the Richmond Fire Department will restore round-the-clock service at all seven stations this summer with Measure Q funding.

City Council members Tuesday approved $1.3 million of the sales tax's projected revenue for the fire department to hire nine firefighters and add an engine company it cut in January 2004, when Richmond faced a severe budget deficit.

Although the political buzz surrounding street violence drew hundreds to the meeting in support of funding police programs, the fire department's requisition may buy a more immediate and visible public safety improvement.

"We have made adjustments to compensate for the lack of staffing," said acting Fire Chief Mike Banks. "But still, you want to have a full complement of firefighters on scene."

The Richmond Fire Department limped through 2004 and early 2005 after laying off 18 firefighters -- one engine company and one ladder truck company -- to absorb a $1.4 million budget cut in late 2003. It then cut another $1.1 million in early 2004.

Those layoffs left the city with six engine companies for seven firehouses, forcing it to close one firehouse every day, rotating the closure daily among Station 61 in Point Richmond, Station 62 in North Richmond and Station 67 in the El Sobrante Valley.

That meant engines sometimes drove farther and took longer to respond to emergency calls than before. Usually it meant the second and third engines needed for a large incident were delayed.

Occasionally, it meant firefighters faced bad situations and took extraordinary risks.

"Two weeks after the first closure, my crew and I were by ourselves for 13 minutes while three houses were burning up in (Point Richmond). I was on one line and my firefighter was on the other. He was between two burning buildings with no help, and I lost visual contact with him," said fire Capt. Jim Russey, president of Firefighters Local 188. "That is dangerous."

The Measure Q money will restore the city's seventh engine company, Banks said, though he did not know when he could begin hiring or whether he could restore the seventh company in the interim with overtime.

It takes two or three months of training to prepare a new firefighter if he or she already has the required emergency medical training, Banks said. The department has already hired back 13 of the 18 laid-off firefighters through vacancies created by retirement.

Lower on the council's list of funding priorities Tuesday was another $1.3 million in Measure Q money proposed to hire another nine firefighters for a dedicated ladder truck company, used for a number of specialized tasks including upper-floor fire rescues.

The department keeps ladder trucks in two stations but not the firefighters to use them. Before the 2004 layoffs, the truck kept at Station 67 had its own crew, meaning it could respond to incidents independently from the station's engine.

That ability is important, Banks said, particularly when the truck is needed for a fire but Station 67's crew is already responding to a different call in their engine.

The council placed the funding proposal for a new truck company as the last priority among proposals it agreed to fund, meaning Measure Q revenue would need to reach $6.3 million this year before the truck company could be funded.

A story on Page A3 of Thursday's Times incorrectly identified a Richmond fire station. Station 68 had a dedicated ladder truck company prior to 2004 budget cuts.

Distributed by the Associated Press