As Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer, in the midst of city layoffs and other cost-saving strategies, battles the challenges of a balanced budget during recessionary times while still meeting public safety guarantees in Measure O, he is proposing the concept of a volunteer fire department for the financially strapped city to fill in the gaps when staff levels are low and even supplement existing levels.
At the June 17 city council meeting, Whitemyer presented a list of comparison cities matching Oakdale’s 20,000 population and similar in area, many with volunteer firefighters staffing their fire departments.
Oakdale does not have any volunteer firefighters but does rely at times on its reserve police officers for police services.
Whitemyer pointed out the 8.5 square mile Central Valley city of Lemoore with a population of over 24,000 that relies on an all-volunteer fire department and maintains one of the safest insurance ratings in the state.
“I share that to show you that other feasibilities are out there,” Whitemyer said.
One of the most significant and widely recognized changes in the fire and rescue service is that on average, most calls to fire departments now are for medical emergencies and not fires, running about 80 percent EMS to 20 percent fires.
Because there is no “recession” in demand for fire department services, the number of fire and emergency medical services calls is increasing every year as firefighters become the first line in someone’s health care.
Generally, and for Oakdale, fire protection is still based on geographically situated, fixed stations staffed by a set number of personnel who stand by and wait to be dispatched when called. During down times, crews train, complete paperwork, and maintain the equipment.
“We need a paradigm shift,” said Whitemyer when explaining the city’s need to increase its use of volunteers. “Doing what we’ve always done is no longer feasible.”
Whitemyer made it clear he didn’t want to replace the city’s paid firefighters, but to let the council and citizens know options are out there.
Having been held in high regard since 9/11, the profession is now receiving more stringent scrutiny when it comes to public safety budgets. Government officials, as they look for creative ways to satisfy public safety demands, appear to be taking a much harder look at exactly what they are buying when asked to spend limited dollars on firefighters, firefighting equipment, and emergency response.
Last year, a Solano County grand jury report released a report that found some cities are possibly burning cash by not taking advantage of volunteer firefighters. The grand jury recommended that cities “investigate and implement the use of fire safety volunteers.”
During his presentation Whitemyer read from the 29 Palms Fire Department’s website on their volunteer firefighters.
“Their dedicated commitment allows the department to maintain daily staffing at both fire stations and they gain a valuable experience and additional training as they pursue the goal of a full time career in the fire service,” Whitemyer said. “This is the model I hope to pursue.”