Suggestions adopted to improve fire department

Number of volunteer county fire fighters has dramatically decreased

editor@sierrastar.comFebruary 11, 2014 

The Madera County Board of Supervisors adopted a report Jan. 28 that is intended to preserve and improve the Madera County Fire Department with a focus on volunteer/paid call firefighters (PCFs).

The 25-page report stemmed from issues raised by the Madera County grand jury in a report released in May. The report focused largely on Cal Fire's dealings with volunteers, and said a "contentious work environment" exists for volunteer firefighters.

The grand jury said Madera County Fire Chief Nancy Koerperich is not following administrative and operational policies for the department that were adopted by the supervisors. She was hired and is paid by Cal Fire and oversees all the fire stations in the county under a Cal Fire / Madera County contract. She has been in her position for about three years.

The grand jury also noted that county board of supervisors is not overseeing the fire department as well as it could, and the board needs to direct Koerperich to adhere to existing policies.

To address a small number of complaints and grievances, the county retained consultant Gary Gilbert, of North Fork, to help identify underlying problems within the fire department, and recommend solutions.

Gilbert had a 37-year career with Cal Fire (CDF), with seven of those years serving as the Madera County Fire Department Chief. Following his retirement from Cal Fire, Gilbert served two terms as Madera County District 5 Supervisor (1998 to 2006).

In addition to Gilbert's report, which was about eight months in the making, county supervisors Tom Wheeler and Manuel Nevarez met with more than 50 paid call firefighters to directly hear and document their input last August.

"I was grateful for the opportunity to meet with the volunteer firefighters and hear from them first-hand," Wheeler said. "Fire fighters are truly the backbone of our community and some of the most selfless public servants you will ever encounter. Addressing their concerns directly was of the utmost importance to me."

The report makes 12 recommendations to improve fire protection services in the county.

Although one of the goals is giving Koerperich broad authority regarding performance expectations of the department, the report also recommended that her performance be annually evaluated on the execution of directives from the supervisors and County Administrative Officer Erik Fleming.

The report said the fire chief and all employees need to embrace a culture of encouragement and appreciation of the efforts of volunteers (PCFs) and staff.

Drastic decline in volunteer fire fighters

The supervisors previously expressed a desire to address a 20% decline (double the national average) in county volunteer fire fighters that has occurred over the past decade.

In his report, Gilbert said the county fire department is in a "serious state of transition due to a nationwide recruitment and retention problem."

Paid County fire fighters (volunteers) have decreased from more than 250 in 1987 to about 140 in 2013, of which about 115 are active and respond to emergencies. Reasons for the decrease is varied, but a major issue is the training time federal, state, and local agencies require to become a volunteer fire fighter.

"A decade ago, a person had to undergo 40 hours of training to become a volunteer fire fighter," Gilbert said. "Now, 180 hours is required. That's the equivalent of a minimum of eight hours every Saturday and Sunday for 12 weeks. That's a huge time commitment for a person who has a full time job and may be raising a family."

Gilbert's report states that 92% of past volunteers claim excess time demand was the reason for leaving.

In addition, would-be volunteer fire fighters are not paid for the time spent for training, and while a lot of the training is held out of county, trainees are not reimbursed for private vehicle milage.

It is recommended that each fire station have a minimum of 20 firefighters, including a station captain, three engine operators, and 16 volunteers. Current numbers of firefighters at county stations is dramatically less. The report shows none at Bass Lake (although three are currently inactive), 12 for Oakhurst, nine in North Fork, 19 in Yosemite Lakes Park, three in Coarsegold, seven in Cedar Valley, and eight in Ahwahnee.

According to Gilbert, Madera County doesn't have the economic resources to fully fund the fire department at the most efficient levels.

"That is the primary reason that a combination (career and volunteer fire fighters) fire department makes the most economical sense and provides an efficient level of service," Gilbert said.

Home insurance affected

Gilbert said the basic standard of at least 20 firefighters per station is based upon past Insurance Services Office (ISO) standards.

"Many people in our mountain communities have been affected by rising fire insurance rates on their residential property," Gilbert said. "There has to be a call for action to address the declining volunteer base and the rising insurance premiums."

Gilbert's report said 48% of past volunteers he interviewed left due to ineffective leadership, including authoritative management style, hostile attitude between existing personnel and newcomers, poor leadership and lack of coordination.

"It is imperative that the department understands the challenges ... develop a problem solving attitude towards the issue ... and address other issues that will allow volunteer / paid call fire fighters to flourish."

Recommendations

The report includes 12 recommended actions meant to increase efficiency, consistency, and communication within the department, and to improve recruitment, retention, management and training, including:

Koerperich to review and utilize existing administrative and operational policies until they can be updated with input from fire department staff, county human resources department, and County Counsel Doug Nelson.

Prepare a report for Fleming, detailing a proposed payment and reimbursement schedule for required training and emergency medical responses.

Establish a department training committee, consisting of career and volunteer personnel to meet and discuss training needs and effectiveness.

Consider contracting with an outside consultant to provide management / leadership training for Madera County Fire Department fire officers (career and volunteer) that focuses on recruitment and retention.

Koerperich will make a status report to the board of supervisors on the recommendations in the next six months.

Gilbert said the recommendations represent established fire protection practices. .

"The County of Madera will continue to delegate a great amount of trust to Cal Fire with little monitoring and with the expectation that they will meet their obligations to the Madera County Fire Department," the report concluded.

Koerperich, who was not present at the supervisors meeting when Gilbert made his Jan. 28 presentation, has reviewed and approved the report. She was not available to comment for this story.

"The adoption of the report is essentially a new beginning for the Madera County Fire Department," board chairman Wheeler said. "It is critical that we improve relations between our PCFs and fire department staff for the betterment of the entire county. The report offers recommendations that will help us to address existing concerns and move forward with establishing better policies and procedures."

Wheeler said the report should not only result in better policies for the PCFs, but boost interest in members of the community to become volunteer fire fighters.

"We have seen a considerable decline in the number of volunteers over the years," Wheeler said. "I am very interested in seeing the department diversify its volunteer opportunities so that more citizens can become involved."

Fleming said the report provides evidence of the need for volunteer firefighters.

"We sincerely appreciate and need our volunteer/paid call firefighters," Fleming said. "If their numbers continue to decline, it will seriously limit the county's ability to deliver fire protection services because we do not have the resources to hire more career firefighters to fill those vacancies. Over the last few years we have cut costs in other areas to allocate more of the county's limited budget to public protection, including fire protection."

Complete report

To see the complete report to improve the Madera County Fire Department, go to madera-county.com, click on board of supervisors at top of page, then go to Tom Wheeler's page.

"There has to be a call for action to address the declining volunteer base and the rising insurance premiums."

— Gary Gilbert```

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