I drive past the unfinished Station #55 located near the end of West Cypress Road in Oakley, at the entrance to Shea Home's Summer Lake properties, almost everyday and wonder – What's going on there? When will it be open and ready to put out threatening fires in our surrounding communities? Sure, I've read articles along the way and have read countless posts from neighbors on social media sites, many of them angry, but with so little facts. So I decided to go directly to Fire Chief Brian Helmick himself, who took the helm on April 2017, and ask him about the facts and what's really going on. Below is based on a recorded interview I had with Fire Chief Helmick.
BUT FIRST, A LITTLE ABOUT OUR FIRE CHIEF BRIAN HELMICK
He lives in Brentwood with his family and he started his career in fire fighting in the mid 90s in Moraga, CA, as a reserve. He went to Moraga Fire right out of high school, and came out this way (East Contra Costa County) to get some operational experience as a volunteer. From volunteer to career, he transitioned from the department in 2002. "I was the first volunteer to come over into the career status," he said. "Today I report to the Fire Board, they are my boss."
WHAT HE LOVES ABOUT BEING A FIRE FIGHTER | HIS WORDS
It's about service. I love to serve. I feel that I have a servant's heart. I care about the people. I care about the community. And I feel that I've been given an ability to walk in into any dynamic and challenging administrative setting and be able to strategically identify what needs to be done and a pathway through collaborating and being innovative, to be able to see long-term, sustainable solutions for organizations.
I love the area, I love the people, I love serving, I love the challenge and I don't think there's any better profession to serve, as the fire service!
I felt called to it a young age and I feel very honored and privileged to just be part of it. I'm just trying to do my due diligence and make sure I make a positive impact when my time is done.
RANKS IN FIRE FIGHTING
Fire engines have a captain that's in charge and an engineer is the "chauffer" and then you have the firefighters.
"I started back over in 2002 as a firefighter, promoted through the ranks, and in 2008, I progressed up to the rank of a Battalion Chief in 2017, reporting to the Fire Chief."
ONE VERY IMPORTANT FACT | DON’T MIX US UP!
We are not part of Contra Costa County Fire – so we do not cover Antioch or West of that. We are not part of the County Board of Supervisors and are not responsible-for or respond-to the City of Oakley or the City of Brentwood. We are an independent special district. We do, however respond to, through agreements – automatic aid and mutual aid agreements with Contra Costa County Fire, but we are not them, and they are not us!
ONE MORE IMPORTANT FACT!
We are East Contra Costa Fire Protection District: Battalion 5 – We are governed by 5 elected fire board members, and we are a system that services 250 square miles and 120,000 residents, which includes: City of Oakley, City of Brentwood, Knightsen, Bethel Island, Byron, Marsh Creek Morgan Territory and Discovery Bay. So we have a very large footprint!
CLIFF NOTES VERSION: HISTORY OF FIRE STATION #55
Developer Shea Homes, who developed Summer Lake in Far East Oakley – had conditions with it’s homebuyers and the City of Oakley that once a certain number of homes were built, the fire district would be given funds to build Fire Station #55 and pay for a fire engine.
Due to the downfall of the economy in 2010, there were questions raised on 'Should the station be built?' because the district could not staff it.
The City of Oakley and Shea Homes had a lengthy discussion. Shea Homes gave close to $3.5 million to go towards a fire engine and building the firehouse.
When I came into the fire district as Fire Chief in 2017, that conversation was just getting wrapped up – so I wasn't really a part of the conversation, I was on the very tail end of it.
We started having discussions now that we had revenue, but we were $1.9 million short of what was needed to construct the station. Our district had a 'one-time' fund that we could utilize for that type of venture, and so the district went ahead and paid the difference.
The district will own the building, so it will be a district-owned asset, so we put $1.9 million into it, to get it constructed here and we anticipate completion in June-July this year of 2019.
THE DISTRICT'S RESOURCES TODAY
There were always questions about "Why are you building stations when you know you don't have the revenues and staff?"
Today we have 3 staffed fire stations and we need, for today's current population, no less than 6 stations.
And if any urban limit lines change, which Brentwood is discussing to some degree, we may need a 10th station. We are 3 stations today and we know we need to get this fixed, and with growth, we realistically need 9 or 10 stations.
Gilbert Property (Delaney Park) is going up and that’s 571 homes, so we are working to address development throughout our jurisdiction – and that's a whole other discussion!
WHY BUILD MORE STATIONS?
We are in conversation with the City of Brentwood about building another station, because we know that we need 6 stations to serve what we have today, and we do know that we don't have the revenues to staff it.
What we've been doing for the last 2 years since I've been here, is cleaning house internally, in regards to all our operation and administration practices and our budget practices, to ensure that we are sustainable for the next 10 years with the revenues that we already have, at a 3-station model.
With that being said, we know that though administratively we are sustainable for 10 years, we are not operationally sustainable for 10 years, and we need those additional 3 stations – so I have been working on making sure that we are sustainable with what we have, and also building infrastructure, getting prepared for whatever it is that we need to be able to grow.
What we are doing as a fire district is making sure that we've done every exercise and done everything that we can to find creative ways of getting revenue.
LET'S TALK MONEY
There are a lot of fees involved - there's cost recovery fees, developer fees, CFD fees (Community Facility District) that the district needs to prepare for growth, and we don't have those mechanisms in place today, where they should be.
What we do have in place right now is pretty antiquated, it was established around the 80s, so there's a lot of work we need to do!
We are trying to clean house internally, and we also trying to make sure that all the mechanisms are in place, to not only address growth, but to really identify what it is that we need, to be able to increase the service levels for the next 3 stations.
We anticipate that this time next year, there will be an 'ask' of our citizens to some degree, but how much and what we're going to need to fill – is it going to be 2 stations or 3 stations, and where the Fire Board is going to land – it all depends on the work we do in 2019. So that's the plan to get revenue to be able to staff the station with fire-fighting personnel.
In the short-term, in June/July, once it's staffed, the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District we plan to search for an administration building, because currently we don't have one! We are currently leasing space in the City of Brentwood and we are out of space there.
Once Fire Station #55 is completed, we plan on running a lot of our administrative activities out of there.
We've also never had our own Fire Prevention Bureau, or a Fire Marshal, until now. We hired Steve Aubert on May 1, 2019. The Fire Marshal (and those who report to him) will also be working out of Fire Station #55, until we can figure out what we'll be doing about an administration building.
The building is going to be used, however we are not going to be running fire engines out of it until we can get sustainable revenue. We anticipate asking the community and working with our partners (the cities and county) on how we can open up that station over the next year.
It takes 9 people to staff a station. Some agencies have dual-staff houses, where they have 2 crews running out of 1 house. We run 1 crew out of each house, and our staffing levels are 3 personnel on shift, per day, and we have 3 different shifts. It takes 9 personnel to be able to cover the station.
We have an existing shuttered station on Bethel Island (shuttered means non-operational), which is Fire Station #95 – it was a volunteer fire station in the past and Fire Station #55 plans to replace that station. The District is going to be working in the very near future to surplus that station.
HOW MUCH REVENUE IS NEEDED?
The District needs sustainable revenue, which is about $4 million a year to be able to staff Station #55 full time. Fundraisers and one-time gives would not equal sustainable revenue.
As a district, we are working to identify how to get sustainable revenue to address our 3-station deficit for our current population, and we are also making sure that we have mechanisms in place as development continues, to make sure that we have the revenues to build additional stations and also have the operational costs taken care of.
We are in the middle of doing a fee-study to look at our impact fees (impact fees are used for brick and mortar for stations and for equipment) and that comes from the developers, it's what they pay as they build units. So we have developer fees that help us make sure that as development goes in, we have 'restricted money' (only earmarked for stations and equipment), but we need to make sure that we have enough there as developments go in.
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE 80S!
We are working on getting our impact fees updated, because many of them haven't been updated since the 80s!
And we are also looking at Community Facility Districts (CFD), because we do have a CFD at Shea Homes at Summer Lakes that brings revenue into the district, but the rest of our organization does not – except for Gilbert Properties in Oakley now – as we put a CFD on that as well.
We need to look at putting CFD's on ALL growth. The CFD's gives us operational money, where the impact fees do not. So we are currently working with the engineers, because we don't have the authority as a fire district to implement or increase impact fees, without the support and approval of the land-use owners, which are the Board of Supervisors and the City Councils. We have to work with both of them to increase those fees and get those mechanisms in place.
Also, again, we are working through our budget to see what we can do at the state and local level with our partners to identify what we can try to address with the money that is available to the district. This will help us address our current deficit and whatever that difference is, is what we will bring back to the communities in 2019 and say listen, 'We need to take this existing deficit, this is what we're going to need to fill' – but we don't know what that number is yet.
I think there is merit behind the community's concerns, especially when it comes down to response times to our communities. There's a valid concern there, because our response times, depending upon the area, location and the day, they can be double what the national averages, standards or recommendations are.
Our response times are clearly not acceptable, but when you have only 3 fire engines covering 250 square miles, you know, it's a system, and so without more resources, response times are not going to get better.
Another complaint people have is that they don't want to pay more taxes to be able to increase service levels.
The thing about the fire district is that we are funded 96% through property taxes and/or assessments, that's it! That's our revenue stream!
The only way to increase our revenue is by increasing the taxes.
Another thing is … the district has never put assessments on its residents ever! Here's the thing: IF Community Facility Districts and appropriate assessments had been applied on properties at the time they were constructed; we wouldn't be having these conversations today!
LET'S TALK GOVERNANCE FOR A HOT MINUTE
Our governance has changed so much prior to 2002. So from 2002 to 2010, we were dependent upon the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. From 2010 to 2018, we had appointed members, who were non-elected, and we didn't get elected members to our Fire Board until Dec. 1, 2018.
Just these last 5 to 6 months, we've had an elected board. So when I came on board our fire district 2 years ago, there were a couple of things that I really wanted to focus on – one was living within our means and being responsible while being sustainable. Two was taking care of our retention issues – because we had lost 48 fire fighters in a matter of 5 years – we only have 31 fire fighters in the district today.
When I came in, I made sure that we were living within our means, we're taking care of our retention issues, we have succession planning in place, we have a measurable strategic plan for the district, everything from our mission, our vision and our values, to what are our goals, objectives, strategies used to achieve them and how do we make them measurable over time, for the next 5 years.
Now we're doing the fee studies and getting everything aligned, and to figure out what it is that we need to do in order to take care of growth and existing problems.
The current issue would not be an issue! If before all of this development, starting in the late 90s, we had the appropriate assessments placed on them, homebuyers would've realized that they had another $300 or whatever it may be, assessment on their property, per year. And we would be getting that revenue on an annual basis, and we would not be having this discussion.
Currently we have 44,000 parcels in our jurisdiction and it basically costs us $100 per year, per parcel. So if we got $100 a year, per parcel, we would be able to increase 1 station.
My point being is, if we were able to get a $300-a-year 'tax-to-pass,' the district's current and future service level challenges would go away.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
The cities and the counties need to have fire protection, but they are not required to provide it. We are an independent, special district and we are the ones that are responsible for providing those services to the cities and counties.
It's one of those things where people say 'you should get more from the city or more from other people' and in concept it works, but that's not how it works.
WHAT OUR FIRE DISTRICT IS DOING
What I'm trying to do is work with my board, work with our partners, work through our budget and work through other mechanisms for cost recovery and seeing what we can do. We are also trying to identify – is it $300 a year or less, or what other things we can do creatively? What can we do to decrease what the 'ask' is going to be?
The biggest criticism that I get from all over, is that the fire station has been there for 2 years, and there's the perspective that 'I sense of lack of urgency,' and I get it! I understand from the outside looking in – why haven't we done whatever – but for us to build a 2-year strategic plan and to be able to redo our budget, be able to address all of our fees to establish a prevention bureau, to make sure that we are sustainable internally, and be able to poll and identify what it is that we should go for and get all of these agreements in place!
IT TAKES TIME
I've been here for 2 years and the reason I'm not making an 'ask' right now is because I want to make one ask, I want to make it right and I want to fix the problem. You sometimes need to measure twice before you cut once, to do it right.
We as a district haven't finished doing the things that we need to do, like demonstrating through our behavior how we're going to address development, how we're going to assure residents that we're not going to come back to them again, or if you we are going to come back and make an ask again, to let them know how much and why.
I want to make sure that we know clearly what our 'ask' is, what it's going to do, and how it's going to pop-up. I want transparency. I want clarity. I want people to understand and for us to do that, I'm not done with my homework yet!
It takes time to communicate in local government – you have to get bids, you have to do interviews, you have to get consultants in, you have to get the data and you have to get the work, you have to get the ordinances or resolutions, you have to implement it and make sure that it works.
All that stuff takes time.
In 2 years, I think as the Fire Board and as the fire district, we've made some very substantial and good changes that give us a very solid foundation administratively and even operationally, to be able to grow.
I feel that we are in a very challenging situation that many say is impossible to fix, but I respectfully disagree. I think that we have the right people in place now, and it's going to take us some time, but it's definitely correctable.
For more in depth information, contact numbers and emails, meetings, recorded meetings, social media sites, etc., visit: www.eccfpd.org.