OAKLEY -- Always wanted to be a firefighter? East Contra Costa wants you. Just don't expect to get paid.
The financially bleeding fire district, fresh off a resounding defeat of a parcel tax measure, opted this week to seek volunteers to help fight fires and perform other duties.
The move came on the same evening that the district board adopted a budget that halves the number of stations in operation and lays off a third of the agency's firefighters.
"I think it's worth doing some serious recruitment and see who's interested," director Steve Barr said.
The district, which has been struggling for years in the face of plunging property tax revenues, is desperately looking for ways to maintain services.
On Monday, the board approved an $8 million spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, $3.5 million less than the previous year.
District voters this month rejected a $197-per-parcel tax that officials had argued was needed to avoid drastic cuts. The measure, which required two-thirds approval, drew the support of only 43.8 percent of voters.
East Contra Costa Fire will keep 27 full-time fire personnel at its three remaining stations, in Oakley, Brentwood and Discovery Bay, forcing many residents to wait longer for an emergency response. The district is closing stations in Bethel Island, Brentwood and Knightsen at the end of the month, a prospect several directors and district residents on Monday said was "sickening." Fire stations in Discovery Bay and Byron were closed two years ago.
The idea of enlisting volunteers came up this month as a way to bridge the service gap left by the budget cuts.
East Contra Costa fire departments were volunteer-based in the 1940s and 1950s, but as the department consolidated it turned to career firefighters, fire Chief Hugh Henderson said.
District officials made it clear this week that becoming a volunteer firefighter would not be a cakewalk. Those interested would have to go through 240 hours of initial fire training, 60 hours of medical training, 100 hours of emergency apparatus driving training and 240 hours of annual updates.
And, as some brought up at Monday night's meeting, volunteering could require responding to calls in the middle of the night or volunteers to leave family functions or work.
"It's important to let people know what it entails. There's a huge time commitment," director Pat Anderson said.
Fire Capt. Gil Guerrero, vice president of the firefighters' union Local 1230, said firefighters "wouldn't stand in the way" of a volunteer program but warned the challenging terrain of the 250-square-mile district would make things difficult.
The district ranges from the waters of Discovery Bay to the steep hillsides of Marsh Creek, with plenty of farmland and residential areas in between.
It's a lot harder to quickly navigate the suburban district now than it was for past generations of volunteers, when the area was more rural, Guerrero said.
The volunteer program would cost the district about $9,500 per person for background checks, training, safety equipment and workers' compensation, Henderson said. Each recruitment session would cost $1,000, he said. Those costs, which would be covered by the district, are not in its current budget.
The average firefighter's salary and benefits is about $100,000, Henderson said.
Directors differed on the number of people they thought would step forward to help meet Henderson's initial suggested goal of 40 to 50 volunteers.
"We need to see what kind of interest there is before committing," said director Jim Frazier, who wanted at least 60 people to show interest given likely attrition.
He voted against the idea of soliciting volunteers, along with Anderson and director Robert Kenny. The other six directors favored soliciting community interest to see whether at least 40 people would be interested.
The board will see what response it gets in the next month before proceeding.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.