When Bill Prather talks about fire protection, he speaks with a perspective gained over more than 50 years.
He was a volunteer firefighter in Pinole while in high school in 1959. He advanced to captain in 11 years with the Richmond Fire Department before an injury cut short his career. He's been a director for the Rodeo-Hercules fire district since 1994.
So when he called the other day to weigh in on the financial dilemma threatening the Contra Costa Fire District, his voice resonated louder than most.
Many factors have contributed to expenses outpacing revenues, he said, beginning with ill-advised increases to firefighter retirement benefits in 2002, but institutional resistance to change shares part of the blame.
Some stations are overstaffed for the preponderance of their calls. The $700,000 pumper rigs regularly used are ill-suited for most missions. Staffing shortages filled with overtime shifts should fall to trained reserves. Prather began raising these issues long ago, after recognizing that medical and service calls dramatically outnumbered fires.
"You could see what the future was bringing," he said. "In 2000, I tried to push for smaller rigs that would take care of 98 percent of our calls. They'd be two-person units -- you don't need three on medical calls.
"If you came into our county and looked at it as a blank slate, you wouldn't choose the 2,000-gallon-a-minute pumper we're using as the vehicle of choice. It would be an attack-line fire vehicle with a small tank, medical and rescue equipment."
Instead of shutting down five stations to save money, as ConFire has done in the last year, Prather said it would have been wiser to study historic patterns and assign two-man teams to stations that handled mostly medical calls and full engine companies to strategic locations.
His most dramatic departure from the status quo is a proposed "Firefighter Temp Agency," to be built from an internship program. He said overtime expenses are a budget buster -- he put ConFire's at $12 million last year -- because there are no reserves to fill unexpected manpower needs. Why not recruit young hopefuls and train them for those roles?
"You get kids out of high school, kids from a top-notch community college program and give them an 18-month internship with a stipend while they're testing. If you need an extra shift filled, you send someone who's been qualified in all areas. They get experience, and they give us manpower."
The idea is apt to meet resistance from the firefighters' union because it tramples on its terrain. But there's no better time to push for change than when financial solvency is at risk. On its current trajectory, ConFire will be bankrupt by 2016, according to County Administrator David Twa.
"It takes the right circumstance to make a plan like this kick in," Prather said. "You can't do it when there's lots of money. That's when people give away too much."
Prather has more to say. He thinks all firefighters should be paramedics ("The difference between a paramedic and an EMT is life and death"). He wants them highly trained and well paid ("If you have fewer people, you need better people, and their salary should reflect what they bring to the community").
The man has no hesitancy about sharing his opinions.
"The public isn't stupid," he said. "They see there's got to be a better way of doing things. We'd better sit down and find a solution."
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.