Whether you know it or not, we’ve just received a wake-up call. I’m referring, of course, to the almost unbelievable action recently taken by the Idyllwild Fire Protection District (IFPD) Board of Commissioners.
The board fired our chief, and apparently for no real reason that has any bearing on his performance as our fire chief. Incredibly, just a day or two earlier they had presented him with a glowing annual performance review. That’s right — then they fired him.
I don’t know for sure why they fired him, but my educated guess is that it has everything to do with the paid-call issue and the fact that two of the board members are, or were, paid-call volunteers. Add to that some personal animosity toward Chief Walker on the part of two key members of the current board.
While Steve Kunkle was still the chief, he and the career firefighters came to the conclusion over time that using reserves is far better than relying on paid-call people.
Reserves are people who want very much to become full-time career firefighters and are willing to work for a pittance ($100 for a 24-hour shift) while they gain experience and build their resume. They are qualified firefighters and EMTs who work 24-hour shifts at the fire station where they are ready to roll with the career firefighters on an instant notice. When they are not out on a call they spend about eight hours a day maintaining the facility and, most importantly, receiving ongoing training along with the career staff.
On the other hand, paid-call firefighters and EMTs volunteer to be on call from their home for a 24-hour shift during which time they are paid $2 an hour. If they are called out they receive $12 an hour for a medical call and $16 per hour for a fire call.
During the past few years very few paid-call people have been able to do that, primarily because they have businesses to run or jobs to show up for.
But the biggest problem with using paid-call people is that all too often they fail to keep up with ongoing training. Paid-call and volunteer firefighters are required to receive the same training regarding “safe and healthy work practices” that career firefighters receive, which must be documented and available for inspection by Cal OSHA. This becomes very important in the event a firefighter or someone under his or her supervision is injured, or has acted in a capacity not supported by ongoing training records. In such a case, the department is subject to a civil lawsuit and a citation issued by Cal OSHA.
In light of this, Chief Walker adopted the same policy, which has infuriated some of the few remaining and former paid-call volunteers. Personally, I see nothing wrong with using paid-call volunteers on a limited basis. In fact, two of the remaining volunteers, who are not classified as firefighters, but are trained EMTs, serve the department very well.
The big challenge, which the department now faces is the same one faced by most other government entities, including cities, counties, our state and federal government, and most of the rest of the world; there’s not enough money to support government activities. There once was more, but the loss of tax revenue — primarily property tax revenue — has reduced the available funds.
Obviously, the department has to cut expenses to an amount covered by income. It won’t be easy or pleasant, but there is no other responsible alternative. Up to this point, Chief Walker has done that by submitting balanced budgets for board approval, but more needs to be done, which is the responsibility of the board.
However, if the community stands by and allows this board of commissioners to continue on the destructive path it has chosen, we will all be the losers. And if we wind up losing our current ambulance service many locals may have to think about moving to someplace where it won’t take 30 minutes to an hour to get emergency medical aid when they need it. In the good ol’ days when people had a heart attack they usually died. Today they usually survive because they receive expert care from paramedics almost immediately.
So, fellow citizens, if you really care, you’ll be at the next IFPD board meeting at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 10 at the fire station, and you’ll tell this board what you think about all this.
Meanwhile, I urge the board of commissioners to rescind their actions regarding Chief Walker, and to focus on improving our department in constructive ways — not destroying it, and to bear in mind that there is a lot of talk in the community about recalling the entire board.
As an added comment, I’d like to point out that there may be a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. As you may have read, the governor and legislature have eliminated about 400 community redevelopment agencies. In our county about $580 million out of the approximately $2 billion collected each year in general purpose property taxes has been set aside for community redevelopment.
The plan, as I understand it, is to make those funds available for schools and special districts. Schools now receive about $700 million plus $260 million in Education Augmentation Funds, and special districts receive about $171 million. As one of about 60 such districts (but the only fire protection district, and for that matter, the only public safety related district) in the county, we may well be in line for a boost in our income.