PINOLE -- A tug of war may be brewing over how to spend a $1.24 million federal grant to the Pinole Fire Department geared to hiring armed forces veterans and laid-off firefighters from other agencies.

The fire chief and the firefighters union say the U.S. Department of Homeland Security SAFER grant will enable the reopening of the shuttered Pinole Valley Station 74, one of two in the city. But the grant, which is spread over two years, would provide only about half the cost of operating the station full time, and city officials warn that the $620,000 yielded in each of the next two years would have to be augmented with significant local funding to run the station.

The shuttering of the station in July of 2011, coupled with a staffing increase from three firefighters per shift to four at the downtown station, saved $1 million a year.

Meanwhile, some emergency response experts as well as residents in Pinole, elsewhere in Contra Costa County and beyond, say that in an era of strapped finances, public agencies need to look at alternatives to what many say is an outdated and unsustainable model of emergency services delivery, rooted in a bygone era when firefighters mostly fought fires. Today, most fire department calls are medical, while fires constitute a shrinking portion of calls, down to less than 10 percent in many departments, including Pinole's.


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Suggestions include deploying two-person specialized medical vehicles to many emergencies as an alternative to much larger and more expensive firefighting apparatus staffed by three or sometimes four firefighters.

On Tuesday, the City Council will hold a special study session to discuss the federal grant as well as a report from City Manager Belinda Espinosa and Fire Chief Charles Hanley, which focuses on four fire service options for Pinole, including the current one. Pinole shares its chief with the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District and is part of a three-agency Battalion 7, along with Rodeo-Hercules and the Contra Costa County Fire District's San Pablo and El Sobrante stations.

The other alternatives are:

  • Reverting to a stand-alone department with its own chief.

  • Contracting with Rodeo-Hercules or Contra Costa Fire.

  • Developing another fire service model.

    Attached to the staff report, which mentions the option of two-person medical vehicles, is a 2010-11 civil grand jury report from Santa Clara County, which faces many of the same firefighting issues as Contra Costa, titled "Fighting fire or fighting change? Rethinking fire department response protocol and consolidation opportunities."

    According to the grand jury report, fire agencies' "continued insistence on clinging to a 100-year-old response model designed to fight structure fires makes no sense given the modern reality that structure fires are the exception and medical emergencies are the norm."

    Firefighters Local 1230 Vice President Nick Ronchetto said two-person medical emergency vehicles present safety issues and are of limited effectiveness in accidents, rescues and hazardous materials incidents.

    "This model (the number of firefighters and apparatus sent on calls) has been a huge success in California and has been used as a model all over the world," Ronchetto said in an email. "So why do we want to change what works?"

    Hanley said in an email that the grant will cover the reopening of Pinole Valley Fire Station 74 with a three-person engine company for two years but did not elaborate.

    On the question of Pinole contracting for service with Rodeo-Hercules or Contra Costa Fire, the staff report all but rules out Contra Costa because of the cost difference, about $3.1 million a year with Rodeo-Hercules versus $3.4 million a year with the county; the differential is due largely to retirement benefits and equipment maintenance and replacement costs, city officials say.

    Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 and tlochner@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.

    IF YOU GO
    What: Special workshop on fire service
    Where: Pinole City Council chamber, 2131 Pear St.
    When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday