Thursday, April 21, 2016

Why Protest SBC Fire Takeover, By Ed Vallerand

[This is a public opinion piece printed in the Desert Trail. The opinions below do not necessarily represent the views of the editor of this website or the people of Wonder Valley. The piece is about what is happening in Twentynine Palms.]

Why Protest SBC Fire Takeover, By Ed Vallerand

I urge registered voters and property owners in Twentynine Palms to protest the transfer of our locally controlled fire department to County Fire. The Board rushed to select County Fire without investigating alternatives. Let’s protest this decision and force the Board to do their job and practice due diligence, before we lose local control.

I am asking you to fill out and mail (fax + e-mail is not acceptable) in the LAFCO protest form to LAFCO, 215 North D Street, STE. 204, San Bernardino, Ca 92415-0490 (it must get there by 25 April), for the following reasons.

NOTE: Forms are available at The bottom right column of the page contains the protest forms. Select either/ or both the “Registered Voter Protest Petition Form and/or the “Landowner Protest Petition Form”. The 29 Palms Water District Office also has copies of the forms.

1. For the safety of fire victims and firefighters
The first and highest priority of firefighters is to rescue people. (firemen’s RECEO code). The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, (CFR1910.134(g)(4)) requires four firefighters on site before any of them enter a building to search for people. This is to ensure the safety of the firefighters. County Fire Division Chief Chamberlin claims that firefighters can ignore the OSHA requirement and enter a burning building to rescue people if they know someone is inside. With lengthy response times, however, someone inside may be overcome with smoke and unable to make their presence known. (Think the Mesquite Springs trailer fire of several years ago where 2 people’s bodies were found in the burnt out trailer during clean-up. That area was and still is SBC Fire’s responsibility). County Fire’s is proposing to have only three firefighters on duty (for $2.2+ million) which would prevent some searches and rescues. Do we want a Fire Department that does not check inside structures to save lives?

2. To protect people’s homes
The next four priorities for firefighters are: limit the exposure to surrounding areas, contain the fire, extinguish the fire, and finally, put out any sparks and assist people with the fire damage.  Let’s look at County Fire’s performance on two recent house fires in Wonder Valley. County Fire had two firefighters on duty at the West WV Fire Station. Neither was qualified to drive the full-size fire engine. Instead County Fire responded with the brush control vehicle which holds a mere 100 gallons of water (the amount of water in a large 4’ home fish tank). The Marine Base also responded, and Yucca Mesa sent a water tanker to assist in saving the slab. A second fire erupted nearby but trucks had to speed past the fire as they went to refill their tanks in Twentynine Palms. Both homes were a total loss.

What’s really tragic is that a tanker filled with 2,800 gallons of water sat unused in the closed East WV station. After the following WV monthly meeting County Fire and a Wonder Valley citizen checked the East Fire Station. The power was turned off, the 10,000 gallon water tank was empty, and County Fire Headquarters needed to be called to get the combination to unlock the building. Next the water tanks at the West WV Fire Station were checked. One tank was empty and the other was only partially filled, containing about 3,000 gallons. In addition, the water tanker does not have a pump on it, so it needs to fill at a fire hydrant or have an engine pump the water out of these ground level tanks into the truck. The old Wonder Valley Volunteer FD had a 1975 tanker with a pump on it and a map of all the local pools and tanks to access when needed.

This is recent verifiable SBC Fire performance history, so do we want this type of performance?

3. To keep our firefighters available to fight our fires
Property owners in Wonder Valley currently pay a fire assessment of $34.10. County Fire has proposed an increase of $321 for a 2-man crew or $489 for a 3-man crew. It's unlikely that residents will accept either proposal. On average firefighters in Wonder Valley respond to 28 calls a year with 9 being east of their borders. County Fire has said their long term plan is to build a new fire station (I heard for about $5 million) in the Adobe/Amboy Road area to better serve both communities. If County Fire closes Wonder Valley's fire department then our firefighters will regularly be serving Wonder Valley, and beyond, as far east as Essex. Who will cover 29 Palms? How long will it take to shift a crew to29 Palms from say Yucca Valley? We long will be without coverage?

4. To ensure the best emergency medical care
Morongo Basin Ambulance has the charter to provide medical aid and transport. MBA treats all people and only charges those that they transport. Their ambulance has all the ALS equipment that County Fire has, and it’s in a vehicle that is less likely to get stuck on our sandy roads and washes. MBA has two 4-wheel drive vehicles to transport people to the ambulances when the terrain is too rough for the ambulance to get through. (MBA provided on site medical support at the off-road vehicle festivals King of the Hammers and Hilltoppers with these 4 wheel drive vehicles and ambulances.) County Fire Division Chief Chamberlin’s presentation includes a proposal for an Advanced Life Support vehicle costing $893,000, plus tax, and $85,000 for equipment. SBC Fire will only have one fire/paramedic crew in 29 Palms. SBC Fire will only have one fire/paramedic crew in 29 Palms so how can they handle causalities at a fire and fight the fire? MBA has 2 ambulances stationed in 29 Palms dedicated to medical care only. Why spend more money for a less mobile equally qualified service?

5. To maintain reasonable costs
County Fire is proposing a tax increase of more than 85% along with an automatic 3% per year cost of living adjustment. (When did you last get a cost of living adjustment?) County Fire will schedule three firefighters at the Adobe Station (instead of the five we now have) at an increase of over a MILLION dollars (to $2,269.913 using 2016/17 rate).

Jim Harris called Z107.7’s Up Close show on March 25th stating that Cal Fire can provide coverage for $1.4 million.  At last August’s special Twentynine Palms Fire Board meeting, Morongo Valley’s Fire Chief tried to speak but was shut down by the board.

Note: Morongo Valley has four people on duty 24/7 including a paramedic. Their cost is $913,850 which covers labor, utilities, facilities, etc., and they set aside $67,610 towards the cost of a replacement fire truck. County Fire wants to increase the tax in Morongo Valley to $893 per parcel, whereas the Morongo Valley local government can provide the same coverage for $350 per parcel using qualified local people being paid desert rates (not the expensive Redland rates.)

Note:  County Fire Engineers received a cost of living adjustment between 10.91% and 14.68% in October 2015. County Fire Captains received a cost of living adjustment between 9.17% and 12.33%.%. And if they weren’t at step 13 and got a satisfactory performance report then they got an additional raise – an annual step raise - that varying from 1.99% and 2.5%. How does the 3% per year tax increase cover this?

We’ve lost local control so can the County revise the Fire Protection with a vote of the people in the District?

Don’t we owe it to ourselves to look at other possible cheaper providers and or maybe restructure of the existing department paying local rates and employing local people?

6. Because the public should have a voice in the matter
Several years ago voters in Twentynine Palms were asked to consider Prop “H”, a 50% increase in the assessment that would have kept both fire stations open, increased the size of the Fire Department by a third (from a Chief and six paid firefighters to a Chief and eight paid firefighters), and added a brush truck and crew. The cost was 1.8 million and the fire department would have remained under local control. The public didn’t believe we needed a larger FD and the majority voted against the proposition. The Board reacted by talking about getting out of the fire business and turning it over to the county.

Why not take a simple survey in the paper asking the public if they

  1. want to go back to the old (pre-Thompson) scheme with the Lear station being a totally volunteer station for “X” dollars, or
  2. continue the previous six-man scheme for “Y” dollars, or
  3. Chief Thompson’s increase for $1.8 million, or
  4. accept County Fire’s one station proposal for $2.2 million plus, or 
  5. going to a CalFire one station scheme for 1.4 million? 
Let the public weigh in.

7. The Lear Fire Station was a (gift?) from the people
LAFCO plans to turn the Lear Fire Station over to County Fire, and they promise to initially continue the rental agreement with Copper Mountain College’s Fire/EMT program. The Lear Station will not be a manned fire station. What happens when the initial period ends? Will County sell it off, or increase the rent to CMC? The people of Desert Heights and Indian Cove paid for this station and turned it over to the Water District to administer as a volunteer fire station. Closing the station was a breach of promise. Perhaps the people who donated it should talk to an attorney about getting it returned.

Do we want to give up the Lear Station?

8. We need LOCAL disaster response
Neither Twentynine Palms Fire, nor probably even County Fire, have or will have local firefighters or paramedics staffing the station here. Where I come from firefighters and police must reside in the city where they work so they are readily available and can quickly report for duty when emergencies occur. We live in the heart of earthquake country. The Yucca Grade ices up each year. These and frequent highway closures can make it difficult for firefighters living down the hill to get to Twentynine Palms. We would all be safer if future Fire Department hires lived east of the top of the Yucca grade.

We need local control to put this into future hiring practices.

9. Our economy cannot support big city salaries
The latest state-published salary information is out for 2014 at Once at that page select “San Bernardino,” and then select “Governing Board,” to review County Fire salaries.

a. Eleven Battalion Chiefs, forty-five Captains, three Engineers, and one firefighter made more than the Twentynine Palms City Manager.
In 2014, Twentynine Palms hired a new City Manager, Joe G. Our local LAFCO Representative, Jim B., thought the salary was too high and objected at the Council meeting to a salary of $184,000 with no medical benefits and no vehicle allowance. (The previous City Manager, Warne, had medical and $600/month vehicle Allowance).  Deducting Joe’s benefits saving from his salary effectively equated to a $170,000 salary with full benefits. Note: The CalPERS retirement and benefits for firefighters is significantly greater than for City employees, so the Fire Personnel made considerable more when benefits are included.

b. The Twentynine Palms fire captains made $92,675 and $82,282 plus benefits in 2014.

They received a 2.5% cost of living increase for 2015. Those salaries will qualify them for a $500,000 and $450,000 home loan at today’s low interest rates. When County Fire takes over these captains will be busted down to an engineer level, at the same pay rate. They will then be able to get step raises and get a promotional raise back to Captain and more step raises.

Twentynine Palms can afford a larger locally controlled fire department if we pay salaries commensurate with the standard of living here.

I urge everyone to file an official protest, and if the protest succeeds we’ll have time to interview other possible providers and consider restructuring the existing fire department, paying local rates and employing local people. Chief Thompson’s contract states he will retire at the end of January 2017, so let’s exclude him as we look to create the fire department of the future, under our local control. An option of returning to two open stations, with six paid firefighters earning desert salaries, augmented with local volunteers needs to be budgeted and presented to the public.

Contracting with CalFire and privatization are other options that have not been properly vetted. If, after exploring all options, we decide that County Fire is the best choice, then the fire department can be turned over to them at that time.

No harm. No foul.

Please protest the County Fire takeover and let's keep our local control.


If you agree with the above then please fill out and mail (fax + e-mail is not acceptable) in the LAFCO protest form to LAFCO, 215 North D Street, STE. 204, San Bernardino, Ca 92415-0490 (it must get there by 25 April).

NOTE: Forms are available at The bottom right column of the page contains the protest forms.

Select either/ or both the “Registered Voter Protest Petition Form and/or the “Landowner Protest Petition Form” and fill them out and mail them in. The 29 Palms Water District Office also has copies of the forms.

Ed Vallerand

Landowner Protest Petition

Registered Voter Protest Petition