Serving on a local elected board can be a thankless job, but few have been thanked less than Rodeo-Hercules Fire District Director Bill Prather.

His board colleagues barely tolerate him. Some firefighters still get up and leave the room when Prather walks in.

It's a heartbreaking turn of events for a man who began his firefighting career as a teenager and was forced to give it up at age 32 after he crushed his forearm in a truck ladder.

"It's been a rough few years," admitted the intense 70-year-old retired fire captain who unfailingly speaks his mind.

It was his unfettered tongue that got him into hot water four years ago, when he made a foolish statement about how "5 foot 2-inch females" were unqualified to work as firefighters.

Prather apologized repeatedly.

But his angry colleagues at the tiny district improperly barred him from meetings and tried to throw him out of office. The firefighters' union absurdly claimed his presence created a hostile work environment.

Prather hired an attorney and successfully defended himself on all counts. The board officially apologized in 2011.

In reality, Prather's inappropriate comment was just the flash point. He and firefighters have been at philosophical odds for years.

For example, Prather endorses the pack test, where firefighters who want to be assigned to wild land strike teams must carry a loaded pack a specified distance in a specified time. The union says firefighters already have a fitness test.


Advertisement

Prather is lobbying for smaller vehicles staffed with two firefighters, a model he says would cost less and better fit the medical nature of most emergency calls. The union cites national experts who recommend at least four firefighters per unit.

Prather is talking with schools about opening a firefighting and emergency medical academy, where graduates could become reserves available countywide. The union says reserves have limited value because they cannot respond as quickly as career firefighters.

Setting aside the legitimate debates around these issues, one has to ask why Prather keeps bringing back his reforms when he has made so little progress in his 18 years in office.

He lacks solid relationships with his board colleagues, which he needs if he ever wants their votes.

And while Prather expresses genuine heartfelt dedication for fire service, he often cynically paints today's firefighters as indifferent to public safety in their pursuit of pay and pensions.

Self-interest is an undeniable union trait, but to broadly denigrate firefighters' commitment to public service is neither fair nor productive.

For Prather's part, he says two factors drive his persistence.

The financial crisis facing his district and others is the perfect time to push change, he says.

"All it will take is for one district to do some of these things, and the others will follow," Prather said. "The public is demanding it."

Second, Prather says he doesn't walk away.

"A real firefighter doesn't show up to a fire and say, 'It's too hot today. I'll come back later,'" Prather said. "A real firefighter doesn't give up."

On the other hand, doing the same thing the same way repeatedly and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Only time will tell whether Prather is a genius or crazy.

a HIRE: Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, hired former Contra Costa Contra Community College trustee Tomi Van de Brooke as her new district director.

The move marks Van de Brooke's return to politics after a series of disappointments. She lost her college seat in November and fell short in her June county supervisor race.

Van de Brooke's career spans from a stint at Shell Oil to running her own consulting business to chief of staff for Contra Costa Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho of Discovery Bay.

GOT POLITICS? Read PoliticsWithLisaV.blogspot.com:

  • Orinda Councilman Steve Glazer declares for the 16th Assembly District.

  • Did Richmond Councilman Nat Bates extend an olive branch to his nemesis Mayor Gayle McLaughlin?

    AND FINALLY: January's Speak Clearly Award goes to Supervisor Piepho.

    Following an acronym-loaded jobs and training slideshow, Piepho asked the presenters questions for which she clearly knew the answers.

    What are PSTSes? Professional, science and technology services. WIBs? Workforce Investment Board. And STEM? Science, technology, engineering and math curriculum.

    "This is very exciting information," Piepho said. "But we lose impact when we don't talk about what we are talking about."

    Amen, sister.

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