Public speakers support transfer of SPFD to VC Fire Protection District

January 20, 2017
Santa Paula News

Public speakers including city firefighters were supportive of the proposed transfer of Santa Paula Fire Department services to the Ventura County Fire Protection District, although at least one person questioned the finances of the proposed move.

City Council Chambers were filled for the January 17 meeting where the hearing on whether to start the process was discussed by the City Council. 

With funds shrinking each year the SPFD, founded in 1903 and converted to a full-time department in 1995, has slipped in keeping up with personnel, equipment and other needs.

Also, the city had received a federal SAFER grant to ensure full engine staffing but found it having to pick up some of the tab before  the second round of funding was decided.  

A tipping point for the SPFD was the November 2014 explosions at Santa Clara Waste Water-Green Compass that led to the forced retirement of two SPFD firefighters injured by inhaling toxic fumes; the SPFD also lost its newest fire engine and equipment valued at about $1 million. Later, executives and managers of the company were indicted on felony and misdemeanor charges related to the incident that, in all, injured dozens of people.

The future of the fire department has been the subject of a White Paper report by Councilwoman Ginger Gherardi and a formal 2016 consultant’s study before Fire Chief Rick Araiza was directed to open talks with the VCFPD.

Chris Mahon, President of the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Association, told the council “First and foremost, I want to make it clear to all of you the firefighters, your firefighters,” support moving forward to start the process of transferring fire services.

Community involvement of the SPFD, known for their generosity staging barbecue fundraisers, among other efforts, will continue: “We live and die on being part and parcel of all the communities we protect.”

In addition, McMahon said county fire personnel that live in Santa Paula “Would like to be more involved” and, hopefully, the Santa Paula Police & Fire Fighters Association would continue its support.

SPFD Captain Jerry Byrum presented a letter signed “by all our members, 

each and every one of us that supports this consolidation. 

I am a 28-year SPFD member and a lifelong resident of Santa Paula who has seen a lot of change, I went from a volunteer,” to a full-time captain as the SPFD evolved over the years to the now-department.

“Things were taken away or never put in our budget,” funding that Byrum said was allotted on a “reactive” but not proactive basis.

“Our training budget has only $2,500 in it, that’s for all our members and not nearly enough.”

For comparison, the VCFPD pays almost $1,000 more for “vital” training of each member of its entire firefighting force than “We have for the entire department…”

Byrum listed other SPFD shortfalls from reimbursement to education to apparatus equipment replacement.

The standard life of a fire engine is 10 years: “We have one new one, one 15-years old being utilized as a first responder and of our backups, one is 27 years old,” and replacement costs even spread over time would be prohibitive for the city. 

SPFD Captain Dustin Lazenby, a fifth generation SPFD, said there is already a strong working relationship between the two departments with mutual aid that can soon become complicated and expensive depending on the incident.

He used the SCWW-Green Compass “Mission Rock” incident as a “good” example of “unfunded liabilities…we had firefighters injured,” and lost the department’s then newest engine.

“Needless to say SPFD took a huge hit and we’re still not able to make up for that,” although the incident occurred in the county area where the SPFD had responded as mutual aid.

But, noted Lazenby, “It could happen inside the city just as easily, that company had property here in the city,” where illegal chemicals were found.

The River Incident of June 2015 is another example: “It was a $400,000 one-day fire that burned 85 percent in Santa Paula. I don’t think we’ve received a bill yet,” but said Lazenby, his remarks were not meant as a reminder, which brought laughter from the audience.  

SPFD Firefighter Nick Bacigalupo, a shop steward, said “We’ve all sat down together and come to you every year and look at the holes in the budget. I’m not the only person disappointed by the fiscal realities of the city,” that has not replaced aging and out of date breathing apparatus, which would cost $300,000.

Engine 81 was built in 1935 and Station 2 in the 1990s; both have “leaky roofs, mold in the walls,” and other structural defects.

“What I been hearing from the community are comments that they are worried about what’s going to happen to the fire department,” said Bacigalupo. “We appreciate the support and that people are concerned about us,” but the tradition of the SPFD will remain.

Gary Nasalroad told the council he is president of the Santa Paula Police & Firefighters Foundation, a board he has served since it was founded due to budgetary concerns. Since then the SPP&FF has donated about $100,000 to the SPFD for safety equipment.

He said the transfer to VCFPD “Makes really good economic sense” although he recognizes the feelings of the community.

“What might bother people the most is the tradition. It’s been a proud tradition but there comes a time we have to look at other issues,” said Nasalroad.

Lynn McReynolds, also a SPP&FF board member and Moonlight at the Ranch 2016 co-chair, listed some of the items purchased by the foundation.

“As a citizen, it bothered me,” that the SPFD lacked vital equipment. “It is time for them to be transitioned to the County of Ventura,” where firefighters will have the best. 

As a grant writer for the SPFD Marleen Canniff said she “analyzed the budget year after year, looking for ways,” to secure funding that often has a short shelf life and won’t help in the long-term.

But grants aren’t available for all needs and, “Although the department has done a really good job, figuring out how to piece things together and make it work,” has been up to chance.

Sheryl Hamlin said transferring to the county is attractive but she questioned funding.

She had studied Ojai’s VCFPD costs over a 9-year period and asked the council how such a move would really impact city coffers based on annual property tax revenue as well as city “legacy” and other costs that still must be defined.

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