Tahoe fire chief: ‘Tremendous amount of tree death’ on our horizon
February 16, 2016
With 2016 being an election year, the Sierra Sun is devoting time each week to conduct interviews with officials and board members who work for the many public districts and government agencies representing Truckee and North Lake Tahoe.
This week, we feature a Q-and-A with North Tahoe Fire Protection District Fire Chief Michael Schwartz:
Sierra Sun: How would you describe the state of the district today?
Schwartz: What I've been using throughout the last few years to characterize the district has been an analogy of aircraft. … When I started here (2012), I would put us in our darkest time as far as budget goes, and probably in resources and moral. It was a very hard time. We've been basically on takeoff and ascension, and I think now we're at a point where I would say we're at altitude and flying steady.
I think it's a good analogy because it does not give you the impression that there won't be turbulence. I don't think we're at a point in our economy, in the recovery, that we're going to say it's smooth sailing yet, but I think we have now gotten to the point where we're out of that ascension phase, which was the recovery portion for the district. We are right now making plans to move from what I call a recovery phase into a strategic management phase. (It's) a really important thing to recognize because that means we have achieved those goals that we, as an organization, set when I started to where we are today.
I had three very simple recovery goals when I started — personnel, apparatus and facilities. We doubled our size because we had lost so many people through attrition. We did (that through) the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant, … so we now have 45 paid firefighters. I call that adequate staffing — that's 15 per shift on any given day. … We have purchased four brand new fire trucks. … The ambulance fleet, we've updated. (For) facilities, this facility (Station 51) was build, (and) we've been going through trying to modernize our other facilities. …
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We're certainly on the way up, and I think we are at altitude. Our budget supports our activities. We're putting money into reserves. … I think operationally we're right where we should be to run a safe fire department and meet what the community expects the fire department to be able to do.
Sun: What's the top one or two biggest challenges the district faces in 2016?
Schwartz: We are going to see — whether this winter really takes the bite out of the drought or not — a tremendous amount of tree death. I am afraid having lived this before in my life up here, that we are still going to have a significant fire problem for a period of time, while we, as government, figure out how going to manage all these trees. I think I have heard fairly realistic numbers of about 20 percent kill. So if you look out here, and you say, OK, 20 percent of those trees are going to die, how am I going to manage that? That's fuel sitting in that forest. It is going to be a challenge. …
I don't think the economy is fully stabilized, so I think we still have some economic concerns where we need to be very conservative in our investments. As I mentioned earlier, (we're) still trying to deal with facilities and infrastructure. Some of the stations are older, and those are very large investments. (It's) very difficult to build facilities in Tahoe — it's more challenging than in other places — so I think replacing what I call my satellite stations in a reasonable time is going to be a challenge.
The other part, frankly, is we have large parts of our district that are underserved by fire hydrants. The district has taken that on, and we're going to work with state and federal and our water partners to try to build a system that has better support for the fire hydrants around the district.
… I think those are all challenges for this year, not they are going to be solved this year. They fall into my category of wicked problems; they are ones without easy solutions.
Sun: As we embark on the second half of the decade, what improvements do you want to see with the district by 2020?
Schwartz: The first improvement I would like to see is that we've moved into a long-term philosophy of strategic management. I call it my strategic management initiative, so we're not putting out fires per se. Fire departments particularly and fire managers of all sorts, we're really good at putting fires out, and we're not as good at strategic planning like the corporate world. (Therefore) I think right now one of my greatest initiatives is to get us into more of a corporate philosophy of long-term strategic planning. It's not just do a strategic plan and sit on it for five or 10 years. We have one of those. This would be a daily process where we're working toward specific goals that meet community needs and adjusting them every day.
… Whether we're using a public-private partnership for infrastructure improvement, which is an alternative to fire hydrants, or we have more fire hydrants, I would like to see our fire flow water capacity system improve to such that we can get an ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating of a 3. The district has had a historic ISO rating of 4, and (it) had been rated just prior to my arrival. I inherited the rating unfortunately about four months into my tenure here, and (it was) losing (its) historic rating of a 4 and going to a 5. One of the reasons we lost points, first it came right during the recession — staffing was low, everything was poor — but the water system here, a lot of areas did not meet fire flow, excluding Tahoe City Public Utility District, North Tahoe Public Utility District and Alpine Meadows. … (However) much of my area is serviced by private water purveyors, and some of those do (meet ISO requirements) and some don't. … The district took on an initiative to add some water tenders … and a fire boat. We are going to use those together to try and meet our ISO requirements. ISO says we can do it, so we're trying that because I can't control the water part of it. …
I want to accomplish a process where we are replacing our facilities on a regular basis just like our apparatuses. … We have a plan to replace apparatuses at a very regular and reputable schedule, so fire trucks every 20 years and ambulances every 10 on a rotating basis, not all at once. … I'm trying to do that for the stations, too, so (we're) replacing a station every 10 years or something on a calculated basis, without having to do any type of special fundraising. … Ideally a fire station will last 50 years — it's a pretty good estimate, and we're at that point with some of ours. It's unfortunate that a lot of them are there at the same time, but if we can start a rolling process of replacing one every so often, … that's the third (improvement).
Sun: In this modern era of smartphones and social media, how is the district changing how it communicates important information to the community?
Schwartz: We have a very active social media team, and Ron Carson, our new public information officer, is certainly a piece of that, but the team extends well beyond that into both our administrative and our operations divisions, so we have multiple people. Our goal is to get critical information out quickly to everybody, so they are not wondering what the sirens are (about) or what the smoke is —that's our number one goal. … I think we have roughly 2,000 people following our Facebook page. We also use Twitter and Instagram and Periscope and a couple of others that are out there. We use those on an on-going basis. …
The website is great if you want to go see what the board has got on its agenda, if you want to take a snapshot of the district at that particular moment, but if you want to know what's happening right now in this minute, or you want to know what's happening that day, you need to be participating in social media, frankly. It's not for everybody. I recognize it's generational, but that's the reality of the world we live in.
We do other things, too — we send out a really nice evacuation guide to every homeowner in the district and to every address we have. This is through the mail service. … There's several reverse 911 systems — Placer Alert is what operates in Placer County, El Dorado has its own, too. We have access to those, so in an emergency, we will also use those reverse 911 systems where we can quickly get messages out. Those handy message boards on the highway, we have access to those, too.
Sun: How does the district balance the needs of locals and second homeowners and visitors when delivering service?
Schwartz: Service demand is service demand. One of the things that we do is we use staffing models based on population data and past historical response to build a matrix for response, so we staff by predicted peak call volumes. … EMS is very predictable. It's 3.5 calls per 10,000 people per day, so if you know how many people you have here, you know how many EMS calls. EMS calls make up a majority of our calls. Fire calls are also predicted based on population, but because the numbers are not as frequent, it's harder to predict them, but we figure by staffing adequately to meet all the EMS demands gives us more people here in the event of a fire. Then we also we use our mutual aid and auto aid partners to basically fill those in. When Incline is really, really busy we move that way, and when we are really busy, they move over here. The same thing with Truckee, Northstar and Squaw. … Nobody is big enough to not need partnerships.