(4/2/10) Editorial – SMFD Volunteers – Heroes or Hosers? Where Does Your Candidate Stand?

This editorial is the opinion of Bill Coburn, publisher of Sierra Madre News Net and 15 year Sierra Madre resident.  It is not intended to reflect the views of any other person or entity with whom I am associated.

In the days following the Santa Anita Fire in April and May of 2008, the grateful residents of this town made no secret of their gratitude to the heroes who stood along the fire lines and fought back the flames that were destroying much of the hillside behind our village, manning fronts along the fire line, protecting their neighbors, and preventing the loss of even a single home, though the flames came within striking distance at multiple locations.  Home made signs sprung up, letters to the editor were written, and Sierra Madreans stood up at local public meetings to express their undying gratitude to the volunteers of the Sierra Madre Fire Department.

Now, just two years later, some members of the community seem to have forgotten that it was these firefighting heroes, along with fire departments from all over California, that saved this town from destruction.  Apparently for some, “gratitude” doesn’t have the shelf life it once did.

A few nights ago, bloggers posted comments on Sierra Madre Tattler, the blog operated by City Council candidate John Crawford, calling the Department “the laughing stock of the state.”  Naturally, as often happens, the Department’s leader was the lightning rod.  One blogger stated that SMFD Chief “Steve Heydorf (sic), who is currently getting paid over $120,000 a year to be our “volunteer” fire Chief does nothing except either sit on his fat butt all day in the Development Services department, or drive around in the shiny, brand new, command vehicle doing his personal errands.”  Another poster said the department is “…just an ‘elite’ club of self-important windbags now, with questionable ability to battle a wastebasket fire.”  Apparently, their ability to fight fires has undergone a rapid decline, having gone from a successful defense against walls of flame racing down hillsides toward our homes, to, according to this poster, an inability to extinguish a few burning pieces of paper.

It wasn’t just the Fire Department that took the hits, nearly half of your non-firefighting neighbors were accused of wanting their neighbors’ homes to burn:  “I’ve heard the DIRTS say before, that they wish a huge fire would burn down every house in the canyon. No wonder why they had no problem with Lowe/Heydorf (sic)/Bamberger/Burnett taking Fire Dept. vehicles out of the city for personal use. Who needs a Fire Department when you’re waiting for the whole city to burn up in flames.”  For the unaware, DIRTS is the term used on Crawford’s blog to describe opponents of Measure V, the controversial ordinance limiting downtown development which in 2007 eked out a victory of fewer than 100 votes out of 3,500 votes cast. I’m not sure how disagreeing with someone over the methods used to limit growth downtown translates to a desire to see our historic canyon burn, but apparently, if this poster is to be believed, that’s what “the dirts” want.

But most of the negativity was directed at the Dept. itself:  “For a long, long time they protected the city with a pair of 1950’s era Crown fire engines just fine. There were a couple of 2nd or 3rd hand support vehicles. Now they have several late model engines, a ladder truck, ambulances, water tankers, suburbans, Tahoe, etc. etc. etc. All that’s missing is a helicopter but I have a hunch they have tried to figure out how to get one!…Why do we give these guys any toy they want, whenever they want???”  “The people in charge of the fire department are DIRTS, just like everyone in city Hall. They don’t have a problem wasting our money because they would love to see Sierra Madre go bankrupt… If you’re wondering why they’re able to get away with it, it’s because their boss, the city manager, is a died in the wool dirt, just like them.”  The logic of that statement escapes me.  Does this person really think it’s Elaine Aguilar’s goal to drive the city bankrupt, which would, of course, leave her without a job?  But I digress.  “Considering the sums of money that have been and are being wasted on that club, I would support contracting out fire services as well. For a few hundred thousand dollars more a year, we can get professional fire fighters, that can actually save lives and property, instead of a bunch of pictures of a burned out building and a death certificate.”  Ouch.

The men and women of the Sierra Madre Fire Department spend long hours training WITH NO PAY so that they will be prepared to, WITH NO PAY, get up in the middle of the night to, WITH NO PAY, leave the warmth of their homes and the loving arms of their family and WITH NO PAY rush to your home and WITH NO PAY save our pets, our possessions, our property or in some cases, our lives.  And they do this for false alarms and non-emergencies, as well.  Did I mention that they do this, without pay?  According to Salary.com, the median salary for a firefighter in the U.S. is in excess of $40,000/yr., significantly more than the $0 paid to all but three Sierra Madre firefighters.

One would expect that a City Council candidate in a town that has traditionally taken great pride in its fire department, which is now more than ninety years old, would say a few words in support of these brave men and women, if only to safeguard the votes of the members of the department and the residents who appreciate and support the department.  Yet Crawford remained silent, allowing his supporters to denigrate the firefighters without a single word in their defense.  Should his silence be interpreted as tacit agreement with the folks who would so willingly dishonor our hometown heroes?  And by extension, the other members of the Crawford/Alcorn/Watts slate, since they “have like beliefs and ideas?” 

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t feel that a person is responsible for things that other people say.  However, in this election, Candidate John Crawford has asked voters to “Send this blog to the City Council” in his request for donations to fund his campaign.  As such, I think it’s fair to consider the content of the entire blog, and not just Mr. Crawford’s personal observations on the blog, when considering whether or not to vote for Mr. Crawford, thereby sending “this blog to the City Council.” 

Since Mr. Crawford chose to remain silent in the face of this criticism of one of Sierra Madre’s most revered institutions, I can’t say if that silence is agreement with his supporters, but it makes me wonder –  should this slate become the majority on the City Council, will the Department survive to celebrate a centennial?  A thought I hope Sierra Madre voters will consider when they cast their votes on April 13th.  After all, the Council was considering proposals to possibly outsource fire suppression, but it was delayed until after the election, and while I didn’t see the meeting, I’m told that it was at the suggestion of one of the members of the slate, Council Member Don Watts.

In full disclosure, I have a personal stake in this discussion.  My brother-in-law, Battalion Chief Bob Burnett, has been on the Department nearly twenty-five years.  I also have a brother that is a paramedic and firefighter in another department.  So maybe I’m a little overly-sensitive to unwarranted criticism of the people who invest so much of their lives in protecting ours.

I thought that in closing, it might be beneficial to talk a little about the Department.  Perhaps the people who were so willing to berate our VOLUNTEERS just don’t know enough about the department, and would not have taken it to task if they knew a little more about it.  So here’s a little history, and a few facts about our department.

According to an article written by then Fire Dept. Chief Jim Heasley in the June 9th, 1949 edition of the Sierra Madre News, SMFD was started after a disastrous fire in 1919, in which a bakery burned and “the fire could not be controlled by the local untrained men without proper equipment.  Only a hand hose cart was then in use.”  Monrovia Fire Dept. was called in, but the local business owners felt that more and better fire protection was needed.  At its next meeting, the Board of Trade (precursor to the Chamber of Commerce), appointed two men to investigate the costs of Sierra Madre obtaining a fire engine and other equipment.  During a demonstration of an engine, a local boy was “badly crippled by having his leg broken when the high pressure hose escaped the hands of the amateur fire fighters.  This proved more than ever the necessity of a trained fire fighting force.”   Shortly thereafter, the Sierra Madre Volunteer Fire Department was organized.  According to Heasley, “There were so many men who wanted to join the fire department that it was necessary to organize a “Firemen’s Club” made up of men of all trades and businesses of the City.”  Today, ninety years later, that tradition continues, with the addition of women to the ranks, and, in 2007, paramedics.

A few facts about Sierra Madre’s Volunteer Fire Department:

The Department currently is fully staffed, with 54 volunteers, three paid personnel and 27 paramedics.  The Fire Chief oversees the administrative functions, daily operations, and response capabilities of the Sierra Madre Fire Department. The three Battalion Chiefs oversee fire prevention, training, personnel, and EMS training and quality assurance, as well as rotating the on duty battalion chief responsibilities. The six Fire Captains oversee crew training, station maintenance and equipment, and first in district pre-plans.

The Department currently has an ISO rating of 4, on a scale of 1 through 10.  Class 1 generally represents superior property fire protection, and Class 10 indicates that the area’s fire-suppression program doesn’t meet ISO’s minimum criteria.  In my opinion, a Class four rating is hardly in the category of a “laughing stock of the state.” This rating is developed according to ISO’s Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS).  The schedule measures the major elements of a community’s fire-suppression system. Ten percent of the overall grading is based on how well the fire department receives fire alarms and dispatches its fire-fighting resources, i.e., communication center, dispatch, etc.  Fifty percent of the overall grading is based on the number of engine companies and the amount of water a community needs to fight a fire. ISO reviews the distribution of fire companies throughout the area and checks that the fire department tests its pumps regularly and inventories each engine company’s nozzles, hoses, breathing apparatus, and other equipment.  Forty percent of the grading is based on the community’s water supply. This part of the survey focuses on whether the community has sufficient water supply for fire suppression beyond daily maximum consumption. ISO surveys all components of the water supply system, including pumps, storage, and filtration.

The Sierra Madre Fire Department has a 1989 Mack Type 1 Engine, soon to be replaced, and a 2000 E-ONE; a 2,800 gallon Water Tender; one Chief’s vehicle; one Command Vehicle; an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) trailer; a Utility truck; a Brush Patrol Truck; and two Rescue Ambulances.  It should be noted that contrary to the blogger’s impression that we “give these guys any toy they want, whenever they want,” our newest engine is ten years old.  The Water Tender truck is nearly 35 years old.  We are all aware of the explosion that has taken place in technology in the last thirty years, fire suppression technology, too, has changed dramatically since much of the equipment that Sierra Madre’s Fire Department uses was manufactured.  Public safety should be a top priority for our City officials – THAT’S why we should give these guys new toys.

Thanks to a generous gift from the Rotary Club last year, the trucks are now outfitted with state of the art radio communication systems.  Prior to Rotary’s gift, some of the engines were operating with outdated equipment that did not adhere to the Homeland Security communication standards established after 9/11.  Thank you Rotary!

During 2009, the Department responded to 28 fire calls, 590 medical calls (about 480 of which were Advanced Life Support Calls) and 200 service calls.  2009 was the third consecutive year in which the Department responded to more than 800 calls. The Department responds to all first alarm brush responses in the San Gabriel Mountains above the City of Sierra Madre with the Cities of Arcadia, Monrovia, Pasadena, the County of Los Angeles, and the United States Forest Service.  The Department also participates in the California State-wide Mutual Aid Program by providing resources for the State of California Office of Emergency Services with the OES Engine.

Property damage in 2009 was less than $160,000, with structure fires at $130,000, vehicle fires at about $24,000, and miscellaneous fires just under $2000.  There were 4 major OES calls, including the Station Fire, which totaled about 2,700 man hours.  Personnel costs for those responses were just under $100,000, but the Department received more than $215,000 in state reimbursement, so revenue from OES was nearly $120,000.  Additionally, the Emergency Medical Service calls generated $285,000.  Total revenue from the department was nearly $400,000.  Additionally, the department received a FEMA grant of $178,000.

Members of the Department accrued more than 11,000 hours of training in 2009, with more than 7,300 of that being standard training, and 4,200 hours of Academy training (14 shift firefighters undergoing more than 300 hours of Academy training).  The average number of training hours per month per firefighter was eighteen.  The training undertaken by our Fire Dept. was about a 110% increase from five years ago.

Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, Euripedes said that you can judge a man by the company he keeps.  This timeless axiom holds true today.  If the John Crawford supporters who were so quick to disparage the men and women of our fire department are indicative of the kind of company he keeps, I think we’d be better off if he wasn’t on our City Council.  That’s why I will show my support of the Fire Department by voting for Mosca, Moran and Walsh, and I urge all Sierra Madre voters to do the same.