Because most people don't think about emergency response until an emergency interrupts their lives, residents of the East Contra Costa Fire District may not be aware of the precarious condition in which they live.

The district, hobbled by inadequate funding, has only three engine companies -- nine firefighters -- on call to answer the needs of 110,000 residents spread across 249 square miles. This "unacceptable staffing level" -- Chief Hugh Henderson's words -- puts at risk the communities of Brentwood, Oakley, Knightsen, Bethel Island and Discovery Bay, and not just because response times have worsened.

A sign notifies people that the East Contra Costa Fire Station 54 has been closed for service in Brentwood on Sept. 28, 2015.
A sign notifies people that the East Contra Costa Fire Station 54 has been closed for service in Brentwood on Sept. 28, 2015. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

The harsh reality is that a structure fire requires a minimum of five trucks, or two more than the district has on call. That means mutual aid is needed from elsewhere, usually Contra Costa Fire's Antioch stations, and if a second emergency unfolds, well, good luck with that.

Henderson offered some context when he appeared before county supervisors recently.

He said a fire in Discovery Bay on Oct. 28 kept all his resources occupied for more than seven hours, during which they couldn't respond to any of three major medical emergencies the same day -- a man with a diabetic seizure in Oakley, a woman found unconscious in Discovery Bay and an elderly Oakley woman suffering chest pains and breathing problems. Ambulances were sent, but in one case the nearest was 15 minutes away.

There were similar stories involving a fire in Brentwood on July 24 and a multicar collision on Marsh Creek Road on Sept. 3. In the latter instance, five victims from three cars needed aid that included extrication with the Jaws of Life. By Henderson's count, there have been at least 16 instances in recent months when all resources were occupied and unavailable elsewhere. God forbid if there were a fire call then.

That's why a special task force was formed and why, after several meetings, it agreed to temporarily fund a fourth station and lobby public support for a sustainable solution. One-time funds -- $666,000 from Brentwood, $382,202 from Oakley and $311,617 from the county -- will enable the district to reopen its shuttered Knightsen station for 18 months. Long-term funding is a trickier proposition because it's expected to mean a ballot initiative next year.

Voters twice have turned down such measures -- a parcel tax in 2012 and a benefit assessment in 2014 -- but proponents think a little education will go a long way in winning support. Residents need to understand, they say, that the district's fiscal problems aren't caused by overspending; its salaries are lower than most. Funding problems trace to East County's roots as farmland and its archaic tax classification as a rural district. Because of that designation, assigned in 1978, it gets only 7 cents of every property tax dollar. Confire, by contrast, gets twice as much.

Before Brentwood, Oakley and neighboring towns became sprawling bedroom communities, a small firefighting force with limited funding was adequate. Now, it's not. As recently as 2008, before property values (and taxes) plummeted, eight stations were in operation; Henderson said 10 are really needed.

"We need to handle this together as a community," said Supervisor Mary Piepho, who lives in Discovery Bay. "That's why there's hope this effort will be different from the last."

If it isn't, East County had better hope that its emergencies are carefully spaced.

Contact Tom Barnidge at