Last week, after significant debate, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a policy of three-person teams, composed of a captain, apparatus engineer and firefighter for all county engine companies.

Third District Supervisor Jeff Stone proposed the policy. He strongly defended it, even in anticipation of limited budget resources again next fiscal year.

“We’ve got to make this a budget priority even at the expense of other agencies,” Stone said. “We’re not talking about a lot of money, only a few stations.”

While supervisors Bob Buster and John Benoit expressed support and admiration for firefighters, both argued that the county’s budget crisis prevented the approval of this policy now.

Benoit felt the issue should be part of overall budget discussions in May and June rather than be approved now, independent of knowledge of the county’s financial prospects.

“I think we set a policy in 2000 and should adhere to that in future budget discussion,” Benoit said. “[It] doesn’t mean I won’t support it then.”

Buster questioned the application of the standard to all fire stations for two reasons: First, he noted that the great majority of calls are medical, not fire-related. Second, if budget resources are limited, he posited that more stations could be kept open, even with two-person crews, than would occur if all crews must be staffed with three people.

Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins said he strongly supported the three-person staffing and felt it provided policy direction to the department.

Although Hawkins said the implementation schedule was flexible, he told the board that 15 of the county’s 39 fire stations do not have this staffing profile.

Voting with Stone were Board President John Tavaglione and Supervisor Marion Ashley, who provided the necessary majority for the policy’s approval.

Speaking against the idea was Barry Talbot, Canyon Lake City Council member. He requested that the board defer its decision until a comprehensive study of the structure of the fire department could be completed.

“Fire protection seems to be outdated. It’s the system, not the people,” Talbot argued. “Arbitrary requirements should not be established. They cannot be justified in terms of service and safety to firefighters.”