Contra Costa firefighters' support last week for the addition of a new two-person medical response team to Walnut Creek Station 1 might be more than just a boon for public safety. Maybe it finally signals their awareness of a need for change in the financially strapped district. Up until now, they've insisted on three-person companies.

The purpose of the 90-day pilot program, according to Fire Marshal Lewis Broschard, is to reduce workloads for the remaining engine teams in Walnut Creek and Lafayette, both of which lost stations to budget cuts. It also would test the effectiveness of a new approach and maybe even improve response times.

The new squad, including one paramedic, will respond to lower-priority, non-life-threatening calls in a more maneuverable pickup-style truck, outfitted with full medical apparatus and minimal firefighting equipment.

Firefighters have long argued against this approach because they'd need to return to the firehouse to get the engine if a fire broke out while they were on a medical call. Under this plan, the three-person engine team remains at the station except for high-priority emergencies. If there's a fire and extra help is needed, the medical squad can switch to firefighting duties after completing its call.

"The reason we supported this is our resources are depleted," said Vince Wells, president of firefighters union Local 1230.


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The rationale matters less than the willingness to budge. In a profession in which tradition and protocol die hard, any hint of openness to new ideas indicates an awareness of the financial realities to be confronted.

"The firefighters' willingness to support this pilot program suggests they're willing to look at alternatives and support different concepts," Broschard said. "We think there's a niche within the fire and EMS response system for a vehicle crew like this.

"As we look at rebuilding the fire district, we're hopeful this kind of resource will play a role in addressing not only the community's concerns but the fiscal constraints we're facing."

Fiscal constraints have been the secret passwords to enter every recent ConFire meeting. Declining property taxes slashed the district's revenue. Growing retirement benefits increased its expenses. A parcel tax measure not only failed at the ballot box but aggravated (A) residents, who resented more taxes, and (B) firefighters, who were miffed at rejection.

One side felt overburdened, the other unappreciated.

In fairness, firefighters can't be blamed for the staggering pension mess that now drains the district's reserves. Fault lies with the shortsighted county supervisors of 11 years ago who rashly approved unsustainable retirement benefits. Nor can residents be blamed for balking at increased taxes at a time when the economy took a nose-dive, their property values plummeted and many of them found themselves out of work.

Besides, blame isn't the issue. A workable solution is.

That's why supervisors recently commissioned consultant Fitch & Associates to study the district and propose modifications. It's why the public has been invited to provide feedback at town hall meetings. It's one of the reasons why Chief Daryl Louder lobbied two months ago for the new two-person medical squads.

The status quo isn't working. Alternatives are required. It's promising to see that the firefighters' union budged enough to at least give this one a try.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.