By Neil Farrell
The Cayucos Fire Department’s troubles have gone from smoldering to a flare up, after the Fire District Board found out they don’t have enough qualified people every day to respond to fire calls.
What it means is that on days when they don’t have a fire engineer on duty — who is certified to drive and operate their lone fire engine — they will be unable to respond to fire calls and will have to rely on Cal Fire and Morro Bay Fire for help, according to Cayucos Fire District Board Member Steve Beightler.
Beightler said their interim fire chief told the Board that they don’t have enough “operators” to cover the city full time.
However, “We are able to respond to medical emergencies with our rescue squad,” he explained. The majority of calls the fire department responds to are medical aids.
The schedule as it stood on Oct. 6, would have no available engineer on duty for nine days in October. Asked if he knew which days exactly they won’t have an engineer, he said the situation was “fluid.” Their assistant chief is trying to find someone to fill in either from their existing ranks or from reserve forces outside the district. He said every time his phone “Dings” it could bring word that another day has been filled.
Beightler said they’ve notified the Cal Fire Dispatch Center of the situation and will alert them when there isn’t an engineer on duty, so they can automatically dispatch Morro Bay or Cal Fire/County Fire, which has a seasonal station house located just off Hwy 1 at the southern edge of Cayucos.
But, Beightler said, they will only have that seasonal station available during the official fire season, and he added, Cal Fire can’t say right now when that might be. Cayucos Fire District used to have a contract with Cal Fire to keep that station open year-round, but that so-called “Amador” contract expired and wasn’t renewed.
Beightler said they have begun a strenuous recruitment for new people, but the earliest they could have someone to fill in the schedule is mid-November.
“We’ve reached out to our mutual aid partners, Cal Fire and Morro Bay Fire and we’re actively recruiting for drivers.” Morro Bay and Cayucos have long backed each other up when needed.
Morro Bay Fire Chief Steve Knuckles said they operate under the “North Coast Mutual Aid Agreement” in place for 15 years, and includes all North Coast fire departments from Los Osos to Hearst Castle. So they would already respond to a structure fire call in Cayucos or any of the towns on the North Coast. And they’ll respond to Cayucos but as a secondary engine. “It’s not our responsibility to be the first out in Cayucos,” said Knuckles.
And if they get dispatched to Cayucos residents can expect a much longer response time. He added that they will only respond to fire calls and not medical aids, which Cayucos can cover with its crews.
Knuckles explained that firefighting resources on the North Coast are thin to begin with. “There’s not one community on the North Coast that can protect itself from large, catastrophic fires,” Knuckles said. Ina way, Cayucos’ troubles getting reserves firefighters is experienced by Morro Bay too, which has more than twice Cayucos’ $550,000 annual budget.
With Cayucos being an all-volunteer fire department, their troubles filling crews hit in a specialized way after the Sept. 30 retirement of Fire Chief Mike Minetti.
Beightler said they have some people who’ve applied but they must have specialized training in order to be certified to drive the big fire engine, and the earliest they can get them into those classes is November. Fire engineers also run the engine’s pumps and valves, so it’s not just a matter of being trained to drive the big vehicles. Cayucos’ volunteer status further hurts their capabilities.
“As a volunteer department,” he said, “we’re limited in where we can find individuals who are able to make the time commitment with all the required training.”
The staffing issue is one Cayucos has faced for many years. That along with a serious budget shortfall has the fire district board going to the County to ask that the fire protection responsibility be turned over to Cal Fire/County Fire.
Beightler said they are scheduled to go before the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCo., which handles the formation and dissolution of special districts in SLO County, on Oct. 19 for a workshop to introduce the proposal for a first reading (see side bar story).
Cayucos voters in June 2016 overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have greatly increased the annual fire tax from about $100 to about $500 collected through property taxes.
That proposal was geared to raise the $550,000 budget to $1.2 million and pay for a full time professional fire department.
With that lifeline of funding defeated, the Fire District is left with little choice but to seek the County’s help.
As it stands, the district’s budget can cover its personnel expenses for the rest of this fiscal year (until June 30, 2018) but Beightler said there are no reserves and no equipment replacement monies, should they have a major break down.
“This is a situation that a lot of volunteer fire departments are facing throughout the state,” Beightler, a retired Cal Fire battalion chief, said, “because of the time commitment. The training requirements are almost the same as for full time firefighters. That’s a lot to ask of people, who have jobs and families and it’s hard to find people.
“It’s especially hard in a retirement community like Cayucos. Volunteer fire departments everywhere are struggling with this.”