PRIMARY SOURCES: What Would Jack Do?
A pointed letter from former Fire Chief Jack Piccinini to the Sebastopol City Council and a staffing report about the fire department
Honestly, I feel a little bad posting these documents in their entirety because Jack Piccinini is no longer Sebastopol’s fire chief, and there’s a new interim fire chief, Bruce Martin, who has recently taken the helm. He will undoubtedly develop his own philosophy of what should be done.
But since Piccinini has taken his case to the court of public opinion—and thrown the council under the bus in so doing—(see our article on this here) I think it’s important for the public to get a first hand look at the primary documents so they can decide for themselves.
To wit, we would like to present two documents written by former Fire Chief Jack Piccinini: his letter of November 1 and the April Fire Department Staffing Report, that he references in his letter.
Piccini’s Letter to the Council dated November 1
FIRE AND EMERGENCY RESPONSE CRISIS
By way of the fire department monthly report, the council was appraised on three incidents in January 2023 and three incidents in February 2023 in which the fire department was not able to respond to an emergency. In addition, I have indicated that a high number of response times exceeded 10 minutes and were as high as 17 minutes. I also specifically cited an incident of a fire at a senior citizen apartment complex in which the response time was over 10 minutes and expressed that such incidents were not acceptable by any metric of industry standard. In addition, I provided the Fire Ad Hoc Committee as well as the Budget Ad Hoc Committee with a staff report on fire department staffing. In that report, I provided background information on why response times matter and provided alternatives to incrementally make improvements to deal with this crisis, until such time [that] funding can be identified to achieve 24-hour career staffing. While the council did act during the budget process by adding one additional 40-hour Fire Engineer position, no other efforts have been considered in dealing with the issues as recommended in reports provided.
This letter is driven by two recent incidents magnifying the seriousness of the issue, a message that I have been delivering to the council multiple times over the past 10 months. On October 24, 2023, at 1:38 AM, the fire department was not able to deliver appropriate emergency response services in assisting a citizen with the medical alarm. Also, on October 28, 2023 at 12:42 PM, the fire department responded to a mobile home fire in which the response time was over seven minutes. The consequences to not responding to the first incident is that the city was not able to provide fundamental public safety emergency response to a citizen of the community that called 9-1-1 seeking help. Other consequences of these kinds of incidents means that the Sebastopol Fire Department is not able to support responding ambulance personnel in performing as a team to deliver high quality emergency medical services, a county-wide standard. The consequences of the second incident resulted in a small fire getting large prior to the fire department’s arrival (see “Why response times mater” in the staff report.)
The city not being able to meet the fundamental mission of an appropriate fire and emergency response also places our neighboring jurisdictions in compromising situations. A neighboring department having to respond to a medical emergency or other single unit assignment, because the city failed to respond to the emergency within the city, places that jurisdiction in a situation wherein their engine is out of position to handle calls within their jurisdiction. In addition, a neighboring jurisdiction, being automatically dispatched to a fire within the city limits of Sebastopol has an expectation of a Sebastopol fire engine arriving prior to their arrival. That agency’s resource arriving before any Sebastopol resources puts them in a position of being confronted with a fire that has the potential to build and go into flashover phase compromising firefighter safety.
I am very aware of the city’s financial challenges, but those challenges can no longer be used as a reason not to take immediate action. The potential passage of a city sales tax, city parcel tax, the Sonoma County fire sales ta initiative, or consolidation will not generate fund any earlier than January 2025. This situation needs to be dealt with promptly, and funding is available from reserve funds.
As your Fire Chief and a subject matter expert, I must continue to state that the city is not meeting the fundamental responsibility of providing adequate public safety specific to fire and emergency responses too its citizens. I recommend you take immediate action by following the recommendation outlined in the previously provided staffing report. By following those recommendations, the gap in meeting emergency response services standards can be closed.
Interim Fire Chief
Attachment: Sebastopol Fire Department Staffing Issue Report, April 1, 2023. [See below]
Sebastopol Fire Department Staffing Issue: Relying on the Volunteer Firefighting Force
As discussed in other reports, the Sebastopol Fire Department (SFD) is staffed by a full-time Fire Chief, one full-time 40-hour Fire Engineer and the use of stipend firefighters but is otherwise a volunteer fire department, as it has been for many years. The department responds to approximately 1,350 calls for service annually. The department also provides fire inspection, fire prevention, disaster preparedness and community support activities. Approximately 12 years ago, the city developed a strategy to use stipend volunteer firefighters to get needed work done, as well as provide for a firefighter in the station to strengthen the availability of personnel to respond to emergencies. While this current staffing and delivery system has generally provided acceptable response time standards and has met the mission of providing fire and emergency response services by maintaining a well-trained, well equipped (except for the need to replace a 33-year-old fire engine) volunteer force, unfortunately, this model is failing. When examining industry standards or best practices, analyzing response time spikes, and considering missed calls for service, SFD is well below standard.
The Volunteer Fire Department
Fire departments across the nation are struggling to recruit, train and retain volunteers necessary to provide a reliable and sustainable volunteer firefighting force. The SFD has maintained and benefited from a very successful volunteer program for many years, but Sebastopol is not immune to the issues surrounding a volunteer force meeting the high demands of the mission to provide fire and emergency service to the community.
The use of volunteer firefighters and volunteer fire departments has been a long- standing tradition across the U.S. when Benjamin Franklin established the first volunteer fire department in 1736. With great pride and commitment, volunteers have provided a great service. The traditional volunteer fire department was built on the foundation of residents, business owners, employees of businesses and ranchers in the community responding, at the sound of a siren, from their home or business to the fire station, staffing a fire equipment and responding to an emergency. This model has and continues to be effective in rural unpopulated areas. As community populations increase, so do calls for service, placing great strain on a 100% volunteer fire department. For years, fire departments have struggled to maintain the balance of the 100% volunteer model and the need for career firefighters in the fire station. The fundamental decision-making points are generally based on population density, call volume, risk, and the effectiveness of the volunteer firefighting force.
Fire departments, historically speaking, would greet a prospective volunteer who would come to the station, be issued fire gear, shown how to start and drive the engine, be expected to respond to the station when the siren or pager sounded, and would engage in firefighting activities with little to no training. That was a simpler time, and the recruitment, training and retaining of a volunteer firefighter is just no longer that easy. Today, fire departments must meet numerous requirements of the law or best practices standards. Volunteer firefighters today must meet minimum training requirements, OSHA regulations, physical agility, breathing and respiratory standards, and must possess a specialized driver's license to drive fire trucks. They must also meet the standards of California Title 19 and Title 22. In addition to the minimum initial training, many hours of ongoing training are necessary for the volunteer to become an apprentice and journeyman firefighter, operate the highly technical fire equipment such as ladder trucks, pumping engines, auto extrication equipment, and medical equipment, to name a few.
Other dynamics which have challenged the reliability of a 100% volunteer fire department is the fact that families have simply become busier, making it more difficult for a family member to participate as a volunteer firefighter. The rigorous training requirements, attending required weekly training sessions, leaving their home to respond to an emergency call, and participating in other public activities is often putting too great of a stain on the volunteer to make such a commitment. Additionally, business owners can no longer afford to allow employees to leave the workplace to respond to the fire station in the event of an emergency.
All of this has resulted in today’s best practices to have minimum on duty career staff in conjunction with a strong volunteer force. This model provides for optimum balance of economy of scale, providing necessary personnel to immediately respond to an emergency with additional volunteer personnel to respond with ancillary fire equipment such as ladder trucks, water tenders and rescue apparatus, as well as to be available to backfill the station during routine emergencies. It should be noted that when compared to like communities, the SFD in the only department in California with the call volume, risk, and workload, that does not have 24-hour career staff on duty. While this is a commendable commentary on our volunteers, as discussed in many other reports and forums, the fact that the city cannot guarantee a response 100% of the time must be repeated. In comparison to all fire agencies in Sonoma County, many agencies much smaller than the City of Sebastopol (in terms of population, call volume and risk) have had career firefighters in place for many years. (See table)
State of the Department
The City of Sebastopol Fire Department has reached the threshold of not being able to provide a reliable and sustainable staffing model using 100% volunteers and is reaching a critical stage. This is exemplified by high response times, the lack of response reliability and volunteer roster sustainability. The City of Sebastopol somehow did not forecast hitting this threshold and did not deal with the staffing issue in a progressive, phased-in strategy. The overriding message is that it is becoming increasingly challenging to ensure that the city meets its mission of providing fire and emergency response services with a high level of reliability. Response times have increased to unacceptable standards and calls for service that have gone unanswered have become more frequent.
The average response time (from time of alarm to arrival) may not present the seriousness of the issue, as response time averages do not tell the whole story. The city’s response times are higher than the industry standard and is due mostly to “turn- out” time (the time it takes for the volunteers to respond to the station from home). In addition, volunteers are finding it more difficult to drive from their home to the fire station in a timely manner due to current traffic conditions. When personnel are not in the station, the turn-out time accelerates to 6-12 minutes and overall response time can be as high as 13-17 minutes. More concerning than the city failing to meet its mission of responding to an emergency in a timely manner, is that SFD has not been able to respond at all, due to the unavailability of a volunteer response. The city has been fortunate that not responding to calls for service has gone without consequences, however, the risk of a consequential incident continues to accelerate.
Why Response Times Matter
Response times are critical in saving lives and property. Departments across the country have 24-hour personnel in communities that may respond to as few as one call per day or in some cases may not respond to any calls in a given day. That is the nature of staffing fire/police departments. It is based on the unknown of when an emergency may occur, and a response is required. It is at the time of the emergency when response times are critical. SFD is responding to 3.65 calls per day, which again is more than some fire stations in municipal departments that respond to less. In addition, the fire department has experienced days in which there were as many as 12 calls for service.
There are many documents and reports that can be referenced that speak to fire department response time standards. The need for fire departments meeting response time criteria is based on reports and standards which come from the NFPA, National Fire Administration, Underwriter laboratory, and Insurance Services Officer (ISO), to name a few. Based on these documents, consistent industry standards, and various studies, the fundamental reasons for maintaining response time standards can be simplified as follows:
• Arrive at a building fire to prevent a small fire from reaching (what is referred to as) flashover stage, which occurs based on the UL time temperature curve table which indicates that flashover will occur between four and six minutes from the start of a fire.
• Arrive at a building fire in under six minutes as necessary to enter the building conduct a primary search and rescue victims, before flashover occurs.
• Arrive on a building fire in under six minutes in order to keep the fire small in order to save the building's contents and prevent the building from catastrophic destruction.
• To prevent a small fire from getting large, as large fires significantly accelerate the risk of firefighter injury.
• To prevent a small fire from getting large which results in a significantly high number of resources required to combat the large fire and commits those resources for a longer period of time on an incident.
• To prevent a fire that has gotten large from spreading from one building to another.
• To prevent a business or commercial building fire from becoming catastrophic resulting in the shutdown of a business or the loss of a business which in turn results in lost jobs, loss of sales tax revenues and loss of property not covered by insurance.
• To arrive on a medical emergency before the responding ambulance in order to initiate lifesaving treatments and techniques such as CPR and early defibrillation.
• To arrive on a vehicle collision or other type of industrial accident and initiate extrication functions to free the victim from the vehicle and to transfer that victim to awaiting ALS resources, who are not equipped nor trained for freeing victims of traffic accidents confined space accidents and other industrial accidents.
The current staffing model of relying on volunteer firefighters as the foundation for the staffing model, is just simply no longer an acceptable standard by any measurement for a city with a population of 7,500+/- with a call volume and workload equivalent to Sebastopol. In looking at comparison cities in the state of California there is no city our size that responds to 1,400 calls for service a year, with a high-density fire prevention workload, and risk, that does not have 24-hour career firefighters. As indicated, the volunteer program has in fact been very successful when considering various matrixes. This unfortunately has created an illusion of a false sense of security, and a lack of understanding of the serious weakness in the current staffing model. This has resulted in the slow development of a state of unreliability and unsustainability and has allowed the city to become complacent on developing an incremental staffing strategy that should have been started years ago. Therefore, it is understood that this revelation can be regarded as startling with regard to the funding allocation that is now required to address this issue and comes with sticker shock. It should also be pointed out here, that as the Matrix Consultant group indicated, Sebastopol Fire Department represents 11% of the city’s general fund allocation, while other comparison cities are between 20- 30%.
• Enhance the volunteer program: Continue an active volunteer recruitment, training, and retention plan. A strong volunteer force is critical as indicated in the report, for ancillary fire equipment such as ladder trucks, water tenders and rescue apparatus, as well as to be available to backfill the station during routine emergencies. It also will provide more volunteers to work stipend shifts keeping costs down and providing optimum economy of scale. As discussed, however, the strictly volunteer force does not in itself solve the response time issue due to the time that it takes to respond to the station.
• Expand the stipend program: This provides a level of assurance that firefighters are in the station at the time of an emergency thus improving the response times and reliability that a firetruck will respond to every emergency. This model, however, has its limitation in terms of being able to count on volunteers being willing/available to cover shifts 24/7.
• Hire full-time career staff: Having career staff in the fire station 24/7 is clearly the most reliable staffing model to guarantee immediate response, thus excellent response times and ensures that a firetruck will respond to every emergency. It should be noted that addressing the staffing issue by way of a JPA, contract for service agreements or consolidating with another department offers no leverage in solving the immediate staffing issue. These options will be discussed in detail in subsequent reports to be included in the SFD Emergency Services Options study.
• Phase 1 – Starting immediately, continue and expand on the current practice of using stipend firefighters and monitor the FLSA 20% threshold, based on regional salary survey. (Total cost estimate $150,000 or $75,000 over current allocation)
• Expand on the FF stipend program to provide two FFs on duty for as much of the 24/7 period as possible.
• Phase 2 – July 1, 2023 - continue the stipend program and hire three full-time Firefighter Engineers to work a 24-hour shift schedule. (Total cost estimate of $415,000 total comp)
• Phase 3* – Approximate date of July 2024-January 2025 -Moderate the stipend program and hire three full-time career Fire Captains (total cost estimate $600,000).
*This phase is based on the passage of a City of Sebastopol driven parcel tax or the completion of consolidating with a fire district (that would include overlaying the parcel tax of the annexing fire district), to cover staffing costs. A parcel tax strategy or a fire district parcel tax overlay will be discussed in subsequent report reports to be included in the SFD Emergency Services Options study.