WALNUT CREEK -- Some medical calls in the financially ailing Contra Costa Fire District will be handled by a crew of two, under a 90-day pilot program that will start Friday morning at the downtown Walnut Creek fire station.
The experiment, a direct fallout of the fire district's budget crisis and the resulting closure of several stations, comes amid calls from taxpayers as well as emergency response experts inside and outside the county to update a service model that dates to a time when fire departments responded mostly to fires.
These days, the majority of fire department responses are medical, and many of those could be handled more cost-efficiently by two-person crews aboard a medical vehicle rather than by three or four firefighters on a fire apparatus, reform advocates say.
The pilot program would add a two-person medical squad to Walnut Creek Station 1, which once had two fire engines but now fields a single engine staffed by three firefighters. Five district stations, including Walnut Creek Station 4, have closed since a $75-a-year parcel tax measure failed in November.
The medical squad decision was applauded by Contra Costa County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, whose district covers portions of Walnut Creek that include Station 4 as well as Station 1, which is at 1330 Civic Drive.
"I'm very pleased that the two-person squad will be assigned to Station 1 in Walnut Creek, the first location that lost a crew last year," she said in an email. "Along with the closure of Station 4 in Walnut Creek earlier this year, response times have increased to those areas. This two-person squad specifically designated for medical calls will reduce response times, not only to these communities, but will improve response times throughout the system."
The arrangement also calls for adding one firefighter at Station 6 in Concord.
"After going through the closures and seeing where we're headed, and that it'll be awhile for things to turn around and we get resources back, we worked out an arrangement with the fire district and the Board of Supervisors," said Vince Wells, president of the firefighters union, Local 1230, whose membership approved the arrangement on Wednesday.
The two-person medical squad at Walnut Creek Station 1 will not be the first in the district. Around 2008, the county fire district's Station 70 in San Pablo supplemented the fire engine there with a two-person squad in what Wells described as "an SUV-type vehicle," for about five or six months before discontinuing it for cost reasons, he said.
The two-person medical squad at Walnut Creek Station 1 will handle only "lower-priority medical calls" by itself, Wells said. Higher-priority calls would be answered with a fire engine and in some cases with both the fire engine and the medical squad, he said.
"It depends on the level of emergency," Wells said.