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Fire Staffing Numbers Game
Less Staff Affects Insurance Rates
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When a fire hits, minutes are precious. Residents scramble to escape as lives and cherished possessions are threatened by the blaze. Seconds seem to slow as everyone waits the arrival of the fire department to contain a growing inferno.

If the rigs are too far off, the fire expands and continues to engulf the structure. The same occurs if the arriving rigs have too few firefighters, their tasks will take much longer as the firefighters’ action to avoid personal risk is delayed until sufficient personnel are on scene.

According to city officials in Oakdale, the closest fire engine to your home has only two fire fighters and maybe a fire captain. However in many emergencies, this staffing is simply inadequate to conduct a safe rescue or quickly extinguish a fire as the city’s fire stations are staffed with half of the recommended minimum staffing guidelines making a fire response less effective than what is considered the absolute minimum in most of the country.

The National Fire Protection Association, the industry authority on fire management, strongly recommends four on-duty personnel for fire companies whose primary functions are to perform basic firefighting at fires, including search and rescue.

According to the Insurance Services Office Inc., or ISO, home insurance rates are based on not only just access to the fire department, but how well prepared local firefighters are to fight fires when they take place. To advance beyond a 10 rating, minimum standards require at least four firefighters serving a defined area.

Most insurance agents and underwriters rely on ISO ratings and use computerized rating systems to calculate home insurance premiums.

Despite warnings of inadequate service levels from its line personnel, a plea from its past long-term fire chief and an advisement by the current command staff against any cuts, even going against its own $32,000 study on fire department staffing and Measure O campaign assurances, when the Oakdale City Council accepted City Manager Bryan Whitemyer’s recommendation to lay off two firefighters to save costs to the city budget, the move brought the city’s firefighting crew to only 12 that at one time was as high as 22 members less than five years ago.

One firefighter per 1,000 people in population is the minimum staffing level advised by the International City/County Management Association. For Oakdale that would currently be 22

Even the yet-to-be negotiated city contract with the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District does not raise the staffing of the local fire houses since the city will be contracting at its own existing levels.

“The NFPA recommendations are just those – recommendations,” said Stanislaus County Fire Protection District Deputy Fire Chief Michael Wapnowski. “All California fire departments strive to meet that. Obviously with limited funding, there can be economic challenges to meet that.”

 “We are staffing at our best our best possible capabilities at this time,” said Whitemyer. “Clearly I would love to staff with four, but we cannot do that financially.”

For the entire story, read the Jan. 8 edition of The Leader.