AB, Time to Fire It Up!

The debate over the cost of a CDF strike team vs an OES strike team is stark! What has ALWAYS amazed me is how the media portrays our local government brothers and sisters. I have to give credit to our OES friends, they have the media's attention these days.

You would think that the Office of Emergency Services was a huge fire department. What it is really is a fleet of unstaffed engines scattered throughout the state. They are headed up by a small staff of "Chiefs" in Sacramento and scattered field offices throughout California. I would suspect there are a few in Colorado now serving as Agency Reps to the ICTs there.

With an OES strike team you are getting folks from local government staffing state owned apparatus (I like to call it the ghost fleet) that are placed throughout departments in California. The local department gets to use that engine basically as a reserve in exchange for maintaining it and keeping it ready for the state. There are agreements for reimbursement and staffing. After the specified time period is met, the state or federal reimbursement kicks in when an activation occurs.

The firefighters can be anything from a full time 56 hour work week employee to a volunteer or, even forbid, a CDF'er! In the case of the teams sent to Colorado, I think most of them were from paid departments in the Sacramento area.

The engines are lime green.

When you look at a priority release demobilization, the OES are the first to be released (even in California). This is because of the cost and, let's be truthful, their effectiveness. They are usually big and cumbersome for most road systems in the wildland environment. In many fires I have been on, the OES are a day late and dollar short (except for those on their "Kelly"). No doubt, in a running fire through an I-Zone environment, I'm glad they are there.

I must say to be fair though, some of this effectiveness is also due to the inexperience of DIVS and other overhead not being very creative in how to use them, so it is not entirely the fault of the OES strike team. This is why you see reference to the "Lawn Chair" syndrome. Even the OES strike team leaders are getting a little more savvy to this and are trying to be a bit more discrete in the use of the dreaded chair and find meaningful work for their team. It's even covered now in I-330 STL class as a no-no!

For most of these firefighters, a trip out of the district is like an adventure with a sometimes "old home week" or party atmosphere where you see old friends and see new things. Let's face it, there's nothing wrong with that. In many districts those who go are based at certain stations, so it becomes a prestige sort of thing. Going "out of county", on the other hand, in CDF is just another day on the job. Comparing the anticipation and excitement level of an OES assignment for local government firefighters is like CDF engines "going out of state" like we did to Montana a couple of years ago. Big Deal with media coverage and all. Both are rare events for those involved.

In a nutshell, in California, CDF uses OES engines on wildland fires to sit on structures, while the CDF engines do the perimeter control. The unfortunate thing about this is that the structures are where the people are, so guess who is left with the impression of who is putting out the fire? It will usually be OES, because they will arrive about the same time the media does, so guess who gets on the nightly news?  When you see a firefighter with a uniform from Elk Grove or Los Angeles, that's who you ID with. It's just a fact of life, no one's fault.

As more and more local government FDs get involved with CDF and USFS in California, they are adapting and learning how to play in the big sand box. This is evidenced by the type 3 engines you see displayed at any fire expo these days. More and more local government fire personnel are being placed on state and national incident command teams. The reason cited is there are not enough bodies to go around in the state or federal system. I believe there is another reason too.

The real cash cow though for local government is the state Emergency Fund, or what we in CDF call the 00900 fund. These local fire departments build their type 3's up for the wildland areas they are acquiring in their annexations to grab the tax base for the expensive homes as people move into the country. The deal hits when the local fire departments basically "hire" out the engine to CDF or the USFS for thousands of dollars a day (in California, the OES reimbursement rates are used), in effect making the engine a revenue producer for the department. Ask yourself, as a fire chief, how I can make money in a fire department. The answer?, go to a CDF or USFS fire! Send your engine to enough of these funding sources and you have a way to keep buying more and more toys for your own sand box.

Here is a recent great example....

Word has it that Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District is building up two UH1H Huey helicopters based on a CDF design. One will be a front line staffed ship, the other to be used as a spare. What fires and rescues do you think these aircraft are going to fly on? Sac Metro? Sure, but the real cash cow will be the CDF front country surrounding them and the 00900 fund that comes with it. It will be interesting to see how that piece of equipment is used. Stay tuned. I guess on the other hand, CDF gets a new helicopter and only has to pay for the flight time.

CDF is doing a TERRIBLE job of marketing itself in the fire community and to the public. The department, because of its resource agency affiliation, is failing to capitalize its strengths as California's fire department. Even though CDF is the third largest fire department in the United States, the public has no name recognition with CDF let alone the fire side of it.

The acronym "CDF" is actually hurting the department because it confuses most of the public (metropolitan areas) who are not familiar with CDF. Public information officers in the department are continuing to use the term CDF and refer to the department as the forestry department. The media picks up on this continually gets the name wrong. CDF is usually referred to as the "Division of Forestry" (something that has not existed since 1977!). Resource protection issues from the timber harvesting in California have overshadowed what 90% of this department is funded for. Forest Practice is diluting the department's firefighting mission which has shifted over the last 75 years from a watershed fire protection system to a watershed fire protection, full service fire, all risk mission. The USFS is facing similar demand from the public to provide service when the public calls for help. The public will not accept an answer that "we can't send that engine to your house fire because it's not our job." 

The public accepts this currently, because the public does not know.

Yet, on the front lines and in every station, CDF engine companies train for and work in the interface zone every day. It is not a party. It is not old home week. It is another day on the road doing your job. That is what they do. In areas where CDF engine companies are located, they provide full service fire protection and a defacto all-risk mission and the types of responses that brings. They do this in spite of a lack of foreward looking leadership that fails to recognize the tremendous changes in the demographics and social trends in California. CDF and the California Resources Agency desire CDF to be what it was 35 years ago. We'd all like to go back in time if we could, but it can't happen, we grow and we change.

Some more examples of non-mission responses managed recently by CDF and how they were handled....

One of the largest and most damaging hazardous materials spills cause by a railroad in California, called the "Cantara Loop" on the upper Sacramento River was managed by a CDF incident command team. In another infamous case in southern California, the "Northridge Earthquake," CDF firefighters assigned were actually instructed by CDF management to remove their uniforms and dress in civilian clothing as to not offend local government! CDF also conducted operations with the City of Oakland during the Loma Prieta Earthquake and the collapse of the Cypress 880 freeway structure in 1989. The Cajon Pass train derailment in San Bernardino County a few years back? It too, was managed by CDF. For those on the front lines, it's about pride, really.

These events described above are in direct conflict with the teachings of what I would term the "Sacramento resource mentality" from the Agency point of view. The department is limited by the Resources Agency on what it can support in the legislative process in Sacramento. Resource Management personnel have the ear of the director and the Resources Agency Secretary. As a result, most bills are either opposed or killed by either the department or the Agency. The budgeting process referred to internally as a "BCP" for Budget Change Proposal are tightly controlled. 

A perfect example last year was a proposal to increase the staffing of CDF engine companies from 3 to 4 firefighters. All in the fire business know how that extra firefighter on the engine increases its initial attack success dramatically, yet the Agency and Department killed this bill because they had confused this issue with NFPA 1710 (Staffing) by saying CDF's mission was not to fight structure fires!

This year it is the CDF Firefighters sponsored legislation to create a new agency called CAL FIRE. It is intended to do for CDF what President Bush is doing for the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies...make government more efficient. Why is CDF and the Agency opposed to it? Most likely because they recognize the sleeping giant public safety element of CDF they can control and the prestige that comes with it. 

Even now, in a post 9/11 world, there has been no mentality or mission shift from Sacramento Headquarters for the men and women on the front lines. This is why there are continued threats to the budget (which is always focused on the initial attack structure). There is no hope for initial attack enhancements, yes we have brand new turbine S2's, but that is because the old aircraft must be replaced. There are no additional airtankers in this state. For the last 25 years or better, the initial attack forces of CDF have been eliminated. Concurrently however, there has been a meteoric rise in non-uniformed personnel in computer (IT) support and other management functions. The department's priorities are out of whack.

An interesting case study to cite is 1992, the last time CDF suffered some severe cuts. Like this year, California was in the midst of a severe budget crisis. What happened as a result? Two major fires resulting in expensive charges to the Emergency Fund.

Old Gulch Fire 18,000 acres (cost ?)
Fountain Fire 64,000 acres (cost 20 million dollars)

Both units where the fires occurred suffered significant cuts in their initial attack structure.

In the case of the Fountain Fire, the following was eliminated:

8 Fire Crews were eliminated (50 % reduction in the unit)
1 Lookout closed
2nd Engine cut from second due station
2nd Engine moved from first due station

Old Gulch Fire

1 Dozer cut 
2nd Engine cut from second due station
4 Lookouts cut
1 Fire Crew cut

Was it worth it?

How much hazard reduction could we have done with that money spent on just those two fires alone?
How many engines would that have funded to respond to your homes in the event of an emergency?
How many fire lookouts could that have funded to prevent that expensive airtanker from taking off?
How many dozers could that have funded saving us from having to hire contracted dozers at thousands of dollars a day?
How many inmate fire crews could that have funded to fight the fires, and do the community work and projects in your towns?
How many CDF fire stations that are 50 years old and falling apart could have been replaced?
How much money would that have provided to CDF operating budgets (fire stations) that have not been increased since 1985?

The answer: A LOT!

Here it is now 2002, and California experiences yet another budget shortfall, this time eclipsing the 1992 deficit. In 10 years hundreds of thousands of more people have moved into the CDF SRA (State Responsibility Area). More people mean more incidents, yet the remaining engine companies, dozers, crews, and the few remaining lookouts, must take up the slack. We have critically low fuel moisture in half of the state this year. Major fires are have already burned thousands of acres there. Still, we must justify our initial attack structure AGIAN to the politicians. We have learned absolutely nothing in 10 years.

The overages are going to OES and the local government because CDF has been neglected, cut, had its budget internally shifted to non-fire priorities. In short, it is being bled to death from within - who knows, it might even be intentional.

And what is happening now? The employee association for the state firefighters, "CDF Firefighters," through their lobbyist and other contacts with the legislature in Sacramento, is fighting for the department. Fortunately, they appear to be successful at this point. But isn't his a little backwards from the way it should be?

The problem is fundamentally that CDF is such a small government entity when compared to say other state departments like the California Department of Corrections. At around 500 Million dollars, the CDF budget is dwarfed by the 4.5 Billion dollar budget of Corrections! What other department do you know of could spend up to 25% of its budget on emergency incidents and not be called on the carpet to find a better way? This would be like Corrections spending 1.1 BILLION dollars over and above their normal budget! CDF's initial attack structure is so broken, we are forced as taxpayers to throw more money out the other end putting out fires and paying for OES sponsored engine companies. Maybe that's the way they want it. Socio-economic shift of the dollars within the state. The cost of doing business.

CDF has the potential to be one of the greatest entities in California Government, but it will take a creative leader to make the magnitude of the changes not seen since by those who 50 years ago built the system in place today. It is time for the next quantum leap. A shift from the old mindset.

There is no more blood to squeeze from this turnip. This is why when you are the person in charge, you get a letter from a union president who is speaking on behalf of the department's employees of great frustration and concern for their department. Basically saying in a nice way, they have no confidence in their leaders.

You know, the scary thing here is there are many parallels to what we have all learned with the CIA and the FBI and there war on terror. Wouldn't it be better to be a bit more proactive than to say down the road, "why did this happen?," or "I told you so!"