When firefighters predict the bad things that could happen when fewer of them protect a community, they cite industry standards to make their case.

But they rarely mention how few fire agencies actually meet the voluntary national staffing and response time benchmarks, or whether they are reasonable.

Of 17 East Bay fire departments, only Oakland meets all four key national measures of adequate fire protection set by the International City/County Management Association and the National Fire Protection Association, according to a review by this newspaper.

Seven districts, or just less than half, fall short on all four counts.

Oakland Fire Department Engine 2565 from Station 25 winds its way up narrow Butters Drive in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. (Jane
Oakland Fire Department Engine 2565 from Station 25 winds its way up narrow Butters Drive in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

At a time when many fire departments have depleted reserves, postponed equipment purchases, sought firefighter pay concessions and even shuttered stations, the gap between the industry's best practices and local service levels will almost certainly widen.

The mismatch begs the question: Should residents worry for their lives and property, or are firefighters promoting service levels communities couldn't afford even when times were good?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Public safety advocates say it is fire, accident and natural disaster victims and firefighters who will pay the price when the region disregards the industry's best and brightest.


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"The standards are based on firefighter and public safety, and so they will be high," said Contra Costa Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho, whose husband is a firefighter. "That doesn't mean they shouldn't be our goals, but we obviously have to marry that with available revenues.

"We will evolve somehow, but I'm still frightened by the situation. I don't think residents are keyed into the risks we face in this county."

Taxpayer groups, however, say the benchmarks primarily benefit those who wrote them and promote a financially unsustainable fire service model.

"They are firefighters' unaffordable wishes and dreams," said Contra Costa Taxpayers Association Executive Director Kris Hunt. "In a perfect world, we would have all these things. Unfortunately, we are trading services for firefighters' high salaries and benefits."

Here's a look at the specific industry recommendations and how local agencies stacked up in the survey:

  • Four firefighters per engine or truck; only Oakland follows the four-person National Fire Protection Association standard. Most use three.

    Engineer Greg Baitx of East Contra Costa Fire Protection District station #94 backs up the fire truck after responding to a call in Knightsen, Calif., on
    Engineer Greg Baitx of East Contra Costa Fire Protection District station #94 backs up the fire truck after responding to a call in Knightsen, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

  • One firefighter per 1,000 people in population; just less than half of the agencies met the minimum staffing level advised by the International City/County Management Association.

  • First unit on the scene within five minutes 90 percent of the time; more than two-thirds of departments failed to meet this benchmark developed by the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA. Contra Costa Fire had the worst performance in the East Bay at an average of nine minutes, 24 seconds. With four of its 28 stations set to close Jan. 15 after the failure of a November tax measure, this response time will likely lengthen.

  • Put at least 15 trained and equipped firefighters on the scene of a single-family residential structure fire within nine minutes, 20 seconds 90 percent of the time; less than one-third of the agencies meet the National Fire Protection Association recommendation.

    The 24-page National Fire Protection Association standards sparked acrimony when the industry membership organization adopted the first version in 2001. The National League of Cities fought the movement, characterizing it as a labor-driven intrusion into local control.

    Not true, an association spokesman said.

    The science-based standards are meant to "educate each community about its level of risk and allow people to make policy decisions," said National Fire Protection Association spokesman Ken Willett.

    A 2010 National Institute of Standards and Technology study found four-person firefighting crews completed 22 key tasks in a typical house fire 25 percent faster than three-person crews.

    Time is critical. The average structure fire doubles in size every two minutes and will "flash over" within eight minutes. Flashover is the point at which heat-generated gases ignite and dramatically reduce anyone's chances of survival.

    "Fires spread very fast, and when minutes count, you need enough trained firefighters to do the job," Alameda city fire Capt. Jim Colburn said.

    Had a fourth firefighter been on the first Contra Costa Fire engine to arrive at a 2007 San Pablo house fire where two firefighters and two residents died, investigators said the individual could have acted as an incident commander and saved time and perhaps lives.

    In other examples from Contra Costa fire Chief Daryl Louder:

  • A September house fire on Margo Drive in Concord that spread to a second home might have been averted had a second unit at the closest fire station not been eliminated two months earlier. The remaining unit was on a medical call, and the response was delayed.

  • A fire that gutted 13 units in a Rossmoor apartment complex in July 2011 might have been less destructive had the closest Walnut Creek fire station not lost one of its two units. The remaining crew was picking up a fire hose in Lafayette when the alarm sounded.

    Incidents like these drive firefighters' ongoing and thus far unsuccessful push for fire districts to formally adopt the voluntary thresholds.

    "Saying we can't reach these goals when we haven't tried is like saying you want to be the world pole-vaulting champion but you never practice," said California Professional Firefighters President Lou Paulson, a former Contra Costa Fire District firefighter.

    But are those benchmarks realistic?

    No, say other firefighting experts who call them too generic and costly for most East Bay fire departments.

    The standards make no distinctions between population densities in rural or suburban communities and cities, said Stewart Gary, a fire services consultant with Citygate Associates and a retired Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department chief.

    Oakland meets the broad standards because much of the city is flat and accessible from multiple points, but suburban districts with non-grid streets, widely spaced stations and varying topography cannot afford it, Gary explained. City fire departments also have access to a larger pool of money than special districts, which rely almost solely on property taxes.

    "I wish agencies would stop applying one-size-fits-all national recommendations," Gary said.

    The San Ramon Valley district, for example, meets none of the four benchmarks, but it is one of only a dozen California fire agencies accredited by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. It is a voluntary but rigorous external review its fire chief said bypasses broad measurements and focuses the district's resources into populated Danville and San Ramon.

    "I don't argue that four firefighters on an engine is great, and I'm sure it's safer and more effective than three," San Ramon Valley fire Chief Richard Price said. "But if my board said, 'We want to meet NFPA standards,' I bet it would cost me another $30 million on top of my $50 million budget. It's not reasonable."

    Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, http://politicswithlisav.blogspot.com or Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.

    By the numbers
    Just less than half of the East Bay s fire agencies meet the minimum staffing level of one sworn personnel member per 1,000 people in the population, recommended by the International City/County Management Association. Here s the breakdown:
    AGENCY FIREFIGHTER PER CAPITA MEET IT?
    Alameda (city)* 1.29 Yes
    Alameda County 0.95 No
    Albany* 1.06 Yes
    Berkeley* 1.06 Yes
    Fremont 0.64 No
    Livermore-Pleasanton 0.69 No
    Oakland 1.07 Yes
    Piedmont* 2.43 Yes
    Contra Costa County 0.44 No
    East Contra Costa 0.30 No
    El Cerrito 1.26 Yes
    Kensington 1.26 Yes
    Moraga-Orinda* 1.62 Yes
    Pinole 0.56 No
    Richmond 0.85 No
    Rodeo-Hercules 0.40 No
    San Ramon Valley* 0.87 No
    * Also operates ambulance service staffed with sworn personnel.
    Source: Staff research, Contra Costa and Alameda County fire agencies