Starting next month, the East Contra Costa Fire District will scale back to three stations but have three firefighters on each engine.
Following the advice of fire Chief Hugh Henderson, other firefighters and numerous residents, directors on Monday approved the proposed configuration in a 5-4 vote before a near-capacity crowd.
"I have to defer to that expertise," said board President Kevin Romick, noting that the Contra Costa Fire District's chief also recommended the model.
Half of the district's six stations will close -- one on Bethel Island and one each in Knightsen and Brentwood -- and 15 of its 43 firefighters will lose their jobs.
Another consequence is longer response times: In 2001, it took six minutes and 27 seconds on average for engines to reach the scene of an emergency. Henderson now is projecting that it will take about 14 minutes to get to the outlying parts of the approximately 250-square-mile area his district encompasses.
"We could be doubling our response time, especially on the outer edges like Bethel Island," he said.
In comparison, the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department, which serves about 150,000 residents, responds to about 62 percent of its calls within five minutes and 91 percent of its calls within seven minutes. It has 10 stations and responded to 10,782 calls for service in 2009. Each company has three to four people, including at least one paramedic. And in the Tracy area, which covers about 170 square miles and has a population of about 104,000, the average response time is within 61/2 minutes in-city and 10 minutes in rural areas. The Tracy Fire District, which has a similar call volume to East County's, has eight staff units that operate out of seven stations, three of which are rural and have two firefighters each, according to David Bramell, Tracy fire division chief.
Delays in response times are what worries island resident Sue DeVore, who has called fire crews more than once on behalf of a fellow diabetic who depends on an insulin pump.
Waiting for an engine to arrive from somewhere else because Bethel Island's station closed could make the difference between life and death, she said.
"Don't we have the right to that protection?" DeVore said.
Bethel Island resident Cha-Cha Cha also wondered how the large number of elderly people in her community will fare without a fire station near them.
"It's going to be ghastly for us," she said.
The board's hand was forced by the failure of Measure S at the polls last week, a parcel tax measure that would have propped up the financially distressed agency for the next 10 years.
Hard-hit by a drop in property tax revenue over the past four years, the fire district has been deficit-spending and expects that it will finish the fiscal year June 30 with a scant $500,000 in reserves.
But voters roundly rejected the idea of a parcel tax that would have started at $197 per year and increased by up to $257, which means that the district, with its savings almost exhausted, now has no choice but to live within its means.
In opting for the three-station, three-person engine configuration Monday, directors rejected two other proposals. One called for keeping four stations open but placing just two firefighters on each engine; the second would have had two-person engines at three stations and three-person engines at the fourth.
None in the audience who spoke on the matter thought putting fewer than three individuals on an engine was safe or effective, however.
Too much happens at the scene of a fire and, in many cases, a medical call, for two firefighters to handle everything, they said.
Moreover, speakers noted that when a pair of firefighters enters a burning structure, there must at least be one other person who stays outside to provide backup.
"You have to have enough people there to do something," said Brentwood resident David Ciappara.
Barbara DuMont, of Oakley, echoed his comments, voicing "serious concerns" about the possibility of grass fires starting from untrimmed weeds in the East Cypress Road area and the frequency of vehicle accidents on that thoroughfare.
Pregnant with twins, Carolyn Prince pointed out that if she needs emergency help when she goes into labor, two pairs of hands might not be enough.
"We have three patients now, not just two," said the Knightsen resident.
But some of the board members who voted to keep four stations open and staff most of them with the bare minimum of firefighters cited the sheer volume of medical calls as the reason for their preference.
Of the 6,260 incidents that engines responded to last year, 4,585 -- 73 percent -- involved people needing medical attention.
The more stations the district can keep open, the closer firefighters will be to those 911 calls and the faster they can get there, director Steve Barr reasoned.
Director Erick Stonebarger noted that the district operated with two-man engines for years and can supplement that help with the three single-paramedic vehicles that the county provides.
Although board members didn't all see eye to eye on how the cuts should be made, they agreed that the district must come up with more palatable long-term solutions to its financial struggles.
Director Cheryl Morgan suggested the district start charging nonprofits in its service area for 911 calls they make because they don't pay taxes. Some in the audience asked the district to consider using its paid-on-call firefighters more often to supplement the full-time crews.
The station closures will place an additional burden on the Contra Costa Fire District and other agencies that come to the rescue when East Contra Costa Fire's personnel are tied up on emergencies, Henderson said.
As for nonemergency calls for situations such as flooding and people locking themselves out of their vehicles, those will take longer to deal with because the district no longer will strain those outside agencies further by summoning their help, Henderson said.
Staff writer Paul Burgarino contributed to this report. Contact Rowena Coestee at 925-779-7141.