Demand soars for area fire departments | SierraSun.com
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Demand soars for area fire departments

DARIN OLDE, Sierra Sun

Monday evening began slowly at the Truckee Fire Protection District, but things would pick up, just as they had the other 28 nights of an already record-breaking month.

The men and women who fight fires in Truckee, Soda Springs, Kings Beach, Squaw Valley and Tahoe City savor the moments between calls more now than ever before – because there were fewer moments between calls in 2000 for virtually all North Shore fire departments.

The year 2000 was noteworthy because records for call volume were broken across most – if not all – fire departments in North Lake Tahoe.

Truckee Fire Protection District logged 259 more calls in 2000 than in 1999, a 16 percent increase. Donner Summit Fire Department broke their previous record by 8 percent and North Tahoe Fire Protection District, which services the North Shore of Lake Tahoe from state line to Tahoma, including ambulance services to Alpine Meadows, by 10 percent.

“Even though we get 100 less propane calls and 100 less transfers, we’re still increasing our call volume. We’ll will probably break 2,000 this year. I can almost guarantee it,” Chief Mike Terwilliger said Friday.

“We are seeing a trend … and it is indicative of a change that is going to be sustained,” said Chief Peter Bansen from Squaw Valley Fire Department, who added that his call log shows a relatively even distribution of calls, from medical, to motor vehicles, to fires and hazardous waste. “In a word, growth is exactly what it is,” he added.

Bansen said Olympic Valley’s record volume this year exceeds the previous record set in 1993 with 275 calls by a small margin, only 6 percent.

While stations like Donner Summit Fire Department may see more medical calls because of the ski areas, they have also seen increases across the board. This month the summit broke records again for January with 135 calls.

“We’re seeing increases in all kinds of calls. Why – look at this place. There are more people living here full time,” Terwilliger said.

With growth not likely to slow soon, anticipating higher demands and guarding against potential losses in service become a major concern.

But handling growth for public service agencies like fire protection is easier than agencies that must reinvest millions for capital improvement.

Chief Terwilliger described a general plan that the district has prepared during the last 10 years to make sure the quality of services does not change.

With the infrastructure in place, new periphery stations continue to upgrade equipment. Stations in Glenshire or Tahoe Donner, for example, have a small staff on hand, but Terwilliger suspects more people will be staffing those stations in the future.

“Buying an ambulance is cheap, it’s getting people on them that’s hard,” he said. “Revenue increases have allowed us to beef up personnel, but it’s close.”

One issue, however, that caught the attention of Chief Bansen was the decrease in volunteers.

“The availability and inventory of rental homes has declined,” Bansen said. “New houses being built are not rentals. They are trophy homes.”

Bansen said that the number of people moving to the area may not be the kind of young, physically fit people who can handle the arduous work of fighting fire. The loss in the number of volunteers does not affect the quality of service, said Capt. Greg Birch of Truckee Fire, because there are still quality individuals attending the fire fighting academy, but it does affect the cost of beefing up manpower.

The disadvantage of growth for some departments may be in funding. Increases in the number of part-time residents, and the duration of their stay influences the work firefighters do without necessarily contributing to the amount of funds they receive.

The Town of Truckee has a transient occupancy tax, but county districts that receive appropriations or tax dollars may not have additional revenue sources depending on the duration or the use of second homes.

To help defray the cost of equipment necessary to serve new growth and development, Town Council will consider a Fire Impact Fee prepared by the Truckee Fire Protection District in their meeting tonight. The fee would cost $.36 per square foot for residential construction and up to $1.08 per square foot for commercial construction. With more people here longer, however, the issue may become a problem down the line.

Still, fire departments continue to move forward by upgrading safety equipment and training new personnel. Donner Summit Fire Department is preparing to purchase a new ambulance if its parent public utility district approves and secures a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety.

“We aren’t allowed to order it until April 1 per our grant request, and we still need board approval,” said Lt. Julie Wilcox from Donner Summit, “but it is anticipated it will go before PUD board Feb. 6.”


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