The Gaucho Gazette

Saving Local Firefighters

Rachel Gauer, Reporter

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After the deadly October wildfires over a year ago, people all over the area have made an effort to prevent another disaster. With recent low humidity percentages and strong winds, Northern California has tried to be extremely cautious by issuing Red Flag warnings in high-risk areas, cutting the power to help prevent any electricity-lead blazes, and by enforcing wildfire safety throughout rural areas.

In order to provide exceptionally reliable services to residents in rural areas, fire departments must be extra alert and ready to approach any large blaze that comes their way.

For the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, or RAFPD, this has been difficult to guarantee. From 2012 to 2014, the stations were on a rotating, “brown out” schedule due to the lack of financial support. The three fire stations were forced to rotate their hours they were open, which increased many residents’ fear of not being protected to the full extent.  Julie Stites, a Penngrove resident and mother to Sophomore Kaia Stites, comments on how this affected her safety in her community.

“Several years ago when [the fire station] had rolling shutdowns, it was so frightening to me. Especially when I would drive by the fire station, and there would be absolutely nothing going on. That was very scary to me,” said Stites.

This could be a new reality for residents in the areas where the three stations of the RAFPD serves: Penngrove, Cotati, and unincorporated areas of Petaluma, for the fire department is underfunded once again. Residents’ parcel tax for the RAFPD has not been raised from an average of $40 since 1993. This current tax gives the fire district approximately $329,000 annually.

In order to potentially gain more funding, the RAFPD will place a measure on the ballot for the midterm elections, which — if it passes — will increase the annual parcel tax to an average of $300 dollars per household in RAFPD’s jurisdiction. This measure, Measure W, would ensure that the stations would not go back to a rotating schedule, and would provide higher quality services for the residents. Jennifer Bechtold, the Administrative Manager and Board Clerk of the Fire District, describes the benefits for not only the Fire Department itself but also the community as a whole.

“We hope to bring on nine, full-time firefighters.  Currently, we use many part-time firefighters: they don’t get benefits, they make $15 an hour, and they typically come in, work for a few years to get experience, and then ultimately leave us to go to larger fire departments. It’s costly to hire people: we spend a lot of money recruiting, training, and teaching them when they are here, only to lose them and have to start all over again. By hiring full-time firefighters and offering them benefits and a pay raise, they hopefully will stay with us long term. We also want to bring on an ALS — or advanced life support — ambulance, which would mean adding paramedics. They would have different, additional training than a regular firefighter, which ultimately can help a life or death situation,” said Bechtold.

Bechtold also explains the consequences if Measure W does not pass.

“If the measure fails, we would ultimately have to close stations again, meaning we would have to cut firefighter hours, and we would most likely lose a lot of the staff that we’ve trained and spent a lot of time and money on. When stations brownout, unfortunately, the response times go up. Instead of a two to three minute response time for most of our areas, residences would be looking at around five to six minutes, which can change the outcome of a medical situation drastically,” said Bechtold.

Fortunately for the Fire District, there is widespread support from the communities of the affected areas. There are countless “Yes on W” signs throughout Penngrove, Petaluma, and Cotati, with many being posted in businesses and on people’s property. “We’ve had a lot of favorable support from our community and businesses. We’ve gone door to door and talked to a lot of people, and it seems like a lot of people really understand that our service is important,” said Bechtold.

 

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