In the week prior to Memorial Day weekend, Modesto experienced two fires that consumed multiple single family residential units.
One fire consumed four homes adjacent to the 132 Freeway right-of-way toxic waste piles. The fire started in brush and spread to the nearby homes. Every Modesto firefighter that was on duty at the time had to be called in to fight the blaze. Then, mutual aid had to be requested from other nearby fire departments. Another fire started in the garage of a home and spread to two other homes.
Every firefighter knows that if a fire is caught early enough, it can usually be put out quickly. The fewer open fire stations and the fewer firefighters on duty, the longer it takes to arrive at the scene of a fire. The longer response time may enable the fire to grow from a small burn into a large conflagration.
Had the fire department been able to respond more quickly and with greater man power, it’s likely that both fires would not have grown so large. A big fire does not necessarily indicate that a fire department has a staffing shortage. Sometimes, a fire gets large before it’s discovered and the fuel feeding the fire is too flammable to prevent a large conflagration. But two large fires in one week are a statistical anomaly, indicating that the Modesto Fire Department is understaffed.
In recent months, more and more buildings around town have been completely gutted by fire. Historically, the fire department has been able to save at least part of a structure. Recent fires seem bigger, with more damage. We need statistical research to verify these anecdotal observations.
Fire Insurance Premiums
Home and business insurance companies base fire insurance premiums on loss history. They also set rates based on a property’s distance from a fire station. As the losses from big fires mount and fire stations are closed, property owners can expect their fire insurance premiums to rise. Once premiums rise, they are slow to come down—if they ever do.
Last year, Modesto voters turned down a sales tax increase that would have fully funded the fire department at historic staffing levels. An increase in fire insurance premiums could eventually be greater than the amount of additional sales tax the voters would have had to pay had they approved the tax increase.
Insurance companies are quick to raise premiums when they discover that there has been a change in risk factors. If a homeowner reads his fire insurance policy, the policy may mention the distance to the nearest fire station. If that fire station closes, the insurance company may revise rates to reflect a higher risk. The greater the distance between a home and a fire station, the greater the chance that the home will be a total loss in a fire.
Annually, the local newspaper prints a summary of salaries paid to City of Modesto employees. Firefighters’ names often appear near the top of the list of the highest paid in the city. As a result, many taxpayers think firefighters are overpaid. The reality is that many firefighters work a lot of overtime. Sixty to eighty hour work weeks are common. When a firefighter works 80 hours in a week, his gross pay is two and a half times his normal salary, making him look highly paid. The taxpayers don’t notice that firefighters don’t have a home life when they work eighty hours a week. Nor do the taxpayers notice firefighters’ health problems later in life caused by exposure to excessive amounts of smoke from the fires fought during a heroic career. The misperception that firefighters are overpaid probably contributed to the defeat of the proposed sales tax increase.
The Choices Facing City Government
As the available tax money for providing fire protection remains stagnant, Modesto’s Fire Department may continue to degrade. In the long run, the added cost to the community will become intolerable. Eventually, city government will need to act aggressively to increase revenue.
The present course being pursued by city government is the first alternative: The city can choose to do nothing. Service may continue to decline and the cost from damages and higher fire insurance premiums may continue to rise.
The city can also institute a volunteer firefighter program to supplement the efforts of the professional force. This could only be done with a modification to the contract with the fire union. It would probably undermine the morale of the existing force. There is also the possibility that the volunteers would not be as effective professional firefighters if their level of training and physical fitness were subpar. Volunteer firefighting forces exist within Stanislaus County. Their effectiveness is unknown.
The city can provide training to citizens, so that the citizens can put out their own small fires before they become large ones. Would the risk to life be worth it?
The city can put another tax initiative on the ballot to raise more revenue in another attempt to restore services.
The city can merge the police and fire departments into one big Department of Public Safety, similar to what the City of Sunnyvale California did over 40 years ago. Police would get crossover training to fight fires. The downside is this would take police officers off the beat and could result in a rise in crime.
Finally, the city can contract with the Stanislaus County Fire Department to take over the Modesto Fire Department. This option would not guarantee restoration of service to previous levels enjoyed by citizens of Modesto as the County has its own funding constraints.
Taking Service For Granted
Over the years, the citizens of Modesto have come to expect a high level of service from their fire department and have received it. The management and staff of the fire department must be very distressed by the lack of support from the community in providing adequate resources. As service deteriorates, citizens will become increasingly distressed about the lack of funding for a department whose world class service apparently has been taken for granted. If taxpayers are unwilling to pay for service, they shouldn’t be surprised when they aren’t properly served.