Sacramento's New Chief Stresses Fire Safety

July 07--The Sacramento Fire Department broke its trend of hiring within the organization with its newly appointed fire chief, Walt White.

Since his first day on the job on July 2, the region, in the throes of its fire season, has kept him busy. He has already been called to address multiple fires, including one on July 4 near Raging Waters water park at Cal Expo, where thousands of visitors were evacuated.

White began his career as a volunteer firefighter. He said that his career of about 30 years serving a variety of roles, from company officer to battalion chief, and "a passion for the profession and a willingness to make use of my education and experience," helped prepare him for the leadership position. He previously served as assistant chief of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

The Bee spoke with White about this year's fire season and his plans to revamp the Fire Department's service delivery and risk reduction plans.

What were your concerns about the Cal Expo fire?

The big concern is that there's a lot of really deceptive fuel. The fuel moisture is in a danger state -- low. And there's a lot of the brush and wild land surrounding the community.

Fortunately, we were fully staffed on the Fourth of July and we up-staffed to provide additional protection along the river because of the activity there. I rode out with one of our battalion chiefs and got back sometime this morning. The activity level was high throughout the night.

People really need to use extreme caution. We do not have really clear indication of the cause of (the July 4) fire. However, it really doesn't take much to get that type of fuel going. And in an area that is difficult to access, the fire can grow pretty quickly and pretty rapidly before we can get equipment into place to start directly attacking fire.

What should the public know about preventing such fires?

There's still going to be leftover fireworks, and people not only need to be cautious of where they use those but that they properly discard them and don't leave smoldering or burning material improperly disposed of.

Also, you want to create fuel breaks around your home, but you need to be mindful of the time of day that you choose to mow down hazard fuel because the operation of mowing hazard fuel itself can create sparks that can ignite fires. The best time to do that is early in the morning. Be mindful of those potentials and have safeguards in place.

Unfortunately, some of the (cause of the fires) is human carelessness. We are in drought conditions. Things are dry, fuel moisture is low and it really doesn't take much to start a fire.

What do you expect to see in the remainder of the fire season?

Fire season in California is always challenging. It pretty much runs from June to October, before we even get a significant seasonal climate change and that risk starts to reduce.

This year could be exceptionally challenging because of the drought conditions. We had a long period of time when we didn't receive the necessary rainfall or the snowpack to provide the water support that is needed to combat some of these fires. That is going to be probably one of the bigger challenges.

How has the Fire Department responded so far?

Some of the economy has begun to turn around and some of the positions that have been previously lost are being restored. However, we need firefighters and water to effectively fight these fires and a oftentimes they're in areas that are remote or inaccessible. There's a lot of challenges to the wildland firefighting in California. And we do have (additional) crews that were provided to us by the Office of Emergency Services.

Fortunately for us, because of Measure U, we opened the stations that were previously closed due to budget reductions. While I still believe that we can enhance our services to the public by adding additional responders, I'm pretty happy that we're at a point where what we had staffed in the past has come back ... However, we still are down some command officers and some management supervision that is really needed to help the organization be very functional and that's going to be another priority, to try and restore those positions so that we can operate as effectively as possible. We still have some budget limitations. Some of the return of those (positions) will happen when we can fund that.

What have been some challenges?

Because we don't have (additional) staff, that creates unanticipated vacancies and a lot of times throughout the summer that results in personnel not just being called back for overtime but being required to remain at work when they would actually like to go home.

What are other issues do you hope to address as fire chief?

I will have a focus on emergency medical service and community risk reduction. I'm looking at the addition of adding more ambulances to our service delivery model, as well as being aware of a possible transition into a mobile integrated health care system, which is more commonly referred to as community para-medicine, where you'll ... be providing a higher level of medical treatment to patients without transporting them to a hospital.

My focus is not only enhancing our service delivery but risk reduction, like our waterways. This is the time of year when we have fatalities along the waterways, and the best way to avoid that is wear a life vest. Avoid consuming alcohol and swimming. Alcohol and water don't mix. And if you're on the water drinking and you're not wearing a life vest, it's typically not a question of "if" but when you'll find yourself in trouble. A lot of times by the time it's recognized and we're called, it's already too late.

Having a boat on the water on (July 4) was big for us, so we can increase that window of opportunity to reach people in time.

Anything you would like to add?

I feel extremely honored and humbled to be entrusted with this job by the city manager, John Shirey.


Copyright 2014 - The Sacramento Bee