On duty, out of area | SierraSun.com

On duty, out of area

Joanna Hartman
Sierra Sun
Ryan Salm/Sierra SunFirefighter Alex Calvillo slide down the fire pole at the Squaw Valley Fire Station on Wednesday In some police and fire departments nearly half of the employees live out of the area in places like Reno or Sierraville.
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Squaw Valley Fire Chief Pete Bansen has lived in the valley since 1978 and served his community with the fire department for more than 25 years. He knows he is fortunate to have almost his entire staff live in the Truckee-North Tahoe region, both for community relations and in case of an emergency.

“Having people live in the valley gives us the ability to operate independently,” Bansen said.

Most other agencies have only half of their personnel located nearby for when that Tahoe earthquake or catastrophic fire strikes.

“I think it’s a real concern,” Bansen said. “It’s going to be a problem. We’re just going to have to cope with it.”

Living and working in the same community is not only convenient, it can also be essential. Unfortunately for most local sheriff’s, police and fire departments, the cost of living is driving people to purchase homes in far-away towns like Reno, Auburn and even Cold Springs.

And it’s an issue that is only going to get worse, they say.

“Police officers’ salaries are not sufficient to afford [living here],” said Truckee Police Chief Scott Berry.

Of the 23 people on staff at the Truckee Police Department, just 13 live in the Truckee-North Tahoe area and the rest live down toward Reno, he said. Placer County sheriff’s has nearly half its employees living out-of-area, and an estimated 60 percent of the North Tahoe Fire Protection District live as far away as Yuba City.

And in the case of a major emergency?

“We talk about it all the time,” Berry said. “In fact I’ve been on the phone this morning … discussing what other mountain resorts do.”

Truckee police and fire departments are fortunate to be next to the Interstate 80 corridor, but even the highway has been known to close. Last year a mudslide restricted Reno traffic for days at a time and the flood of 1997 cut Highway 89 access in both directions.

Because this region does have snowstorms, avalanches and other difficult weather, emergency personnel are familiar with the conditions.

“Sometimes you get held over and sometimes you can’t make it to work,” said Placer County sheriff’s captain Jeffrey Granum.

In the case of extreme emergencies, agencies rely on mutual aid.

“If we need more help … we have agreements with Meeks Bay, Squaw Valley, Incline, Truckee. We all cover each others’ back,” said North Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Duane Whitelaw.

Local agencies say they would work to get their employees to the scene of an emergency either by alternate driving routes or, in special cases, by helicopter.

“The bottom line for those of us with employees out of the area ” we can only rely on the people that are on duty at eight in the morning,” Whitelaw said. “It’s not just fire ” it’s the utility districts, law enforcement, Placer County. We immediately will form an emergency operation center … we really are on the same page when it comes to what it’s going to take to protect our area.”

Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Bryce Keller said, “We’re well-prepared for those kinds of issues.”

And while agency leaders are prepared for the worst, they agree that having employees live in the community they serve would be a better option.

“My preference is that everyone would live local,” Keller said. “It just makes it easier [to be] more available for call-back type situations.”

Granum said: “We would like to have all our staff live in the area where they actually work and serve … financially it’s not do-able for everybody.”