There was a dizzying array of charts and graphs. There were multiple statistical columns -- response times, dispatch times, time on tasks. There were five-year projections of revenues, expenditures and deficits.
The 50-page PowerPoint "project briefing" that consulting firm Fitch & Associates dished up Tuesday for the Contra Costa Fire District board touched on nearly every aspect of the financially troubled district, with the notable exception of good news.
Ever since property taxes plummeted and ConFire found itself spending more than it takes in, the district has sought solutions. A parcel tax was rejected by voters. Five stations were closed.
The Fitch study was commissioned 10 months ago in hopes that outside experts might find a more affordable operating model. Senior consultant Jim Broman, a former fire chief, uttered the most telling words.
"We are working with significant restraints," he said. "When we offer options, we are not saying this is what you need for your system. This is what you can afford today. I was fairly quickly aware of the fact that ConFire is under-resourced. Even before the station closings, you were under-resourced."
So the problem is not just money, although that's problem enough. (The district is burning a hole in its $23 million reserve fund.) A bigger problem is that it cannot operate effectively with any fewer firefighters without further eroding response time.
So, where to begin?
By studying historic patterns of fire and medical emergencies -- plotting the time and location of every 2012 ConFire call -- the consultants tried to pinpoint the optimal locations of firefighting teams to respond within a six- or eight-minute time frame.
After charting the medical and firefighting emergencies, consultants proposed combinations of two- and three-person units for those separate missions. Instead of 23 three-person teams, for instance, the same resources might be used to field 15 three-person firefighting teams and 12 two-person medical units.
All of this is contingent, they explained, on keeping 69 firefighters on duty at all times. And meeting those operating costs is contingent on property taxes increasing 5 percent per year so revenues will match expenses before reserves are gone.
Further complicating decisions are these factors: 1) Getting one fire truck on site within six minutes is meaningless without support, because multiple units are needed to fight structure fires; 2) Firefighters aren't needed just to fight fires -- they also perform water, trench, rope and motor vehicle rescues; 3) Neighboring jurisdictions will occasionally need mutual aid.
So, now how many three-person teams are needed?
Firefighting is a complex business, consultant Guillermo Fuentes acknowledged, and none of the actions his firm proposes will be long-term solutions. "You can't continually compress," he said.
He mentioned other worries that lie ahead. Fire trucks and equipment will some day need to be replaced. Stations will need repairs. Call volumes will increase as the population grows, and business costs will go up.
What's really needed to fix the district's problems, Fuentes said, is a reliable funding stream that doesn't take a nose-dive when property values fall.
If the board knew how to solve that problem, it wouldn't need a Fitch report.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.