Fearing a neighboring fire district's fiscal crisis will sap its own thin firefighting ranks, the Contra Costa Fire District placed a cap on the engines and manpower it will dispatch outside its own territory.
The rare move means the far larger Central Contra Costa fire district will send only up to three units to the East Contra Costa Fire District, whose officials on July 1 shut down half of their six fire stations after voters rejected a parcel tax in June.
Contra Costa Fire is already limiting the number of units it sends under automatic aid to Pinole, Rodeo and Crockett after the three communities closed two stations earlier this year.
"These are the Solomon-like decisions we have to make when weare left with few resources," said a visibly frustrated Contra Costa fire board member and Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho, who lives in Discovery Bay and is married to an Alameda County firefighter.
East Contra Costa may still request help for major incidents, but within a month, Contra Costa Fire will no longer automatically dispatch under automatic aid what the industry calls the "closest resource" into its neighbor's territory once the number hits the cap.
As a result, it will take longer for a fire engine to arrive on the scene, and it could lead to greater losses of life and property, fire officials say.
At East County Fire Protection District's suggestion, Contra Costa Fire also will no longer respond to its neighbor's
Fire districts rely heavily on aid, but the formula is based on roughly comparable service levels, Chief Daryl Louder told the supervisors, who reluctantly supported the proposal.
After East County shuttered 50 percent of its firehouses, "there is a great potential for our district to be called into East Contra Costa, which would draw down our resources and jeopardize our ability to protect our residents in Antioch, Pittsburg and Bay Point," Louder said.
In the first nine days of July, Contra Costa Fire sent 27 units to 18 incidents in East Contra Costa, compared with just three units going the other direction.
East Contra Costa fire board chairman and Brentwood Councilman Steve Barr unsuccessfully sought a six-month delay, saying that he is negotiating with the county's separately funded emergency medical services division to divert some of the pure medical calls away from firefighters.
But East Contra Costa Chief Hugh Henderson, who must protect a 200-square-mile district with just three fire stations, said he understands his counterpart's position.
"It makes sense that we mirror each other. I think it's a fair way of doing things," Henderson said.
It may be fair, but it is unrealistic, said Contra Costa Firefighters Local 1230 spokesman and fire Captain Vince Wells.
"If there's a house fire in Brentwood, and we send our units, and there's a second fire in Discovery Bay, I don't think ConFire will refuse to send more units," Wells said.
Piepho also delivered a passionate plea in favor of Contra Costa Fire's own fire safety parcel tax expected to be placed on the November ballot, calling the funding critical for public safety.
"If it does not pass, the public will feel those consequences directly (and the outcome will be) counter to ... every public safety officer's philosophy in this county, state and nation," she said. "They are here to protect the public, and when they don't have the tools to do so, they get upset."