TAHOE CITY, Calif. — The North Tahoe Fire Protection District recently added 12 new firefighters to its roster just in time for the height of fire season.
The district received a $1.61 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, covering the salaries, wages and benefits of nine full-time firefighters for two years.
NTFPD also recently hired an additional full-time firefighter to replace a retiree, and two part-time firefighters, none of whom are covered by the SAFER grant.
“I recognized from a chief’s perspective that we needed to rebuild line staffing, we needed to update our apparatus and we needed to work on some of our facility infrastructure over a period of time,” said NTFPD Chief Mike Schwartz. “I saw the SAFER grant as a way to just accelerate the most important part of that, which is staffing, because at the end of the day, it’s firefighters who put out fires.”
It allows the district to have 13 firefighters on duty daily, Schwartz said; before, that number ranged between eight and nine.
“I believe the levels we had were not adequate for the amount of calls we’re asked to respond to, which is why we pursued the SAFER grant,” he said. “… To have adequate staffing makes the firefighters safer (and) makes the community safer.”
In 2012, the district responded to 1,812 calls for service, which grew to 1,988 in 2013. It’s a number NTFPD expects to increase this year, as 934 calls have been made between Jan. 1 and July 2, with a severe wildland fire season anticipated.
California is in a drought emergency due to three consecutive dry winters. As of July 1, all of California is in a “severe drought,” with 78.97 percent of the state in “extreme drought” and 36.46 percent in “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
This year, Calfire has responded to more than 2,700 fires, about 900 more than average for this time of year. Locally, NTFPD has responded to six vegetation fire calls as of July 2, two less than all of last year.
“Having enough people show up on your initial alarm to get that fire contained and controlled in the first few minutes of the fire is the difference between it burning less than an acre to burning a subdivision,” Schwartz said.
NTFPD protects 31 square miles on the North and West shores of Lake Tahoe, with six stations in the district located in Alpine Meadows, Tahoe City, Homewood, Dollar Hill, Carnelian Bay and Kings Beach.
The new hires are spread throughout the district and its stations, including the two stations of the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District, which NTFPD helps manage as part of a mutual aid agreement signed earlier this year.
“I just saw (the grant) as tremendously good timing in that we could get these people on, trained and deployed before what can arguably be the never ending fire season,” Schwartz said.
Once the two-year SAFER grant expires, the district will likely ask for a partial retention grant in order to keep the new hires, should its budget then not be sufficient enough to keep them all employed.
For fiscal year 2014-15, the district’s preliminary budget is for $11.2 million, with about $8.38 million for personnel salaries and benefits.
“The SAFER grant is a spring board to try to help a district get ahead of the staffing equation by giving (it) some funds, but it’s not made to sustain your local workforce forever,” Schwartz explained.
If needed and approved, a partial retention grant would provide an unknown amount of funding to the district for an additional two years, at which point Schwartz believes the economy would have recovered enough for the district to support all the new hires.
“We pretty much believe having that shift at 13 is adequate (and) is not excessive by any means,” Schwartz said. “… This will allow the district to be where (it) needs to be to serve, to do the mission we’re asked to do.”