Among the first observations that struck Jeff Carman when he took command of the Contra Costa Fire District seven months ago was the volume of calls his firefighters answered.
"They run a tremendous number of structure fires," the fire chief said. "It's not unusual on a weekend to get called out five, six or seven times. We get difficult, complex calls, too -- falls down hillsides, water rescues. There's a lot of topography here."
The observations are in sharp contrast to his experience in Roseville, a Sacramento suburb where he was assistant chief of operations. ConFire sees more structure fires in a typical month, he said, than Roseville usually does in 12. Concord Station No. 6 handles nearly half as many calls of all kinds (4,500) as Roseville's 10 stations (10,000) do in a year.
That wasn't all he noticed. He saw the district needs some changes. The dispatch center, which lost its accreditation from the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch, needed new software and hardware to meet efficiency standards. Upgrades had been postponed because of budget shortfalls.
Money issues still plague the district -- it's dipping into reserves to pay its bills -- thanks to property tax declines and hefty retirement obligations. But Carman sees help on the way; property values are rising, and a new operating model would provide greater efficiencies.
Hailed as an innovator at his hiring, the new chief has proposed a dramatic change in how the district handles emergency medical response. He wants his department to add ambulance service to its responsibilities, replacing private vendor AMR in that role.
"If 66 percent of our job is EMS," he said, "then let's embrace it and get into it. The vast majority of our job is EMS, but we don't have control over delivery of that service."
Most 911 emergency medical calls currently result in a fire company -- three firefighters and an engine -- racing to the scene, joined by two AMR paramedics in an ambulance. That's five responders and two vehicles for one emergency. In Carman's plan, each company would still have three firefighters, but a number of strategically located stations would add ambulances and two paramedics. Those EMS teams would be the sole responders for all but the most serious emergencies.
He said this approach reduces cost (paramedics' salaries are lower than firefighters'), eliminates duplication of efforts and saves firefighters for what they do best. A single structure fire can require 15 or more firefighting personnel.
"This changes the model," he said. "That's the big thing for me."
Other possible changes include "community paramedicine," in which medical responders treat ailments on site, saving the cost of an ambulance ride to the emergency room. Those same responders might offer low-cost preventive services such as vaccinations, or quick-response intervention for psychiatric emergencies.
A consulting group is studying the feasibility of Carman's plan -- the ambulance contract is up for bid in September -- but that's not his only idea. He sees revenue potential from marketing his fleet maintenance shop services to other nearby districts. He sees similar potential for his radio and IT technicians.
Bit by bit, he hopes to redefine ConFire's role.
For now, though, he has staffing issues -- there are 20 vacancies to fill -- as the community girds for what he describes as the "worst, driest" fire season in memory.
It's a good thing he likes challenges. He has plenty of them.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com