HESPERIA—The San Bernardino County Fire Department has shuttered one of the three fire stations providing fire protection to this 72 square mile city with a population of 90,173.
Fire Station 301, located at 9430 11th Avenue, was shut down on January 14. Previously, one paramedic engine, one brush engine, one paramedic ambulance and one heavy rescue vehicle was staged out of the station.
The decision to close the station was made by county fire chief Mark Hartwig in the wake of the city’s inability to provide more funding. Three of the city’s council members and the fire union sponsored a citywide ballot measure in November that would have imposed an $85 per parcel per year tax to pay for augmenting fire service levels. That measure was defeated soundly, garnering only 19 percent support.
That leaves only Fire Station 302, at 17288 Olive Street, with one paramedic engine, one brush engine and two paramedic ambulances, and Fire Station 304, at 15660 Eucalyptus Street, with one paramedic engine, one ladder truck, one paramedic ambulance, one water truck and one chief’s vehicle, still manned and running as city fire stations.
Station 301’s fire engine will be maintained as reserve capital equipment.
There is another fire station in Hesperia, Fire Station 305, located on Caliente Road, west of Interstate 15. While a city fire department paramedic unit, which uses the paramedic ambulance formerly staged out of Station 301, is housed at that station, the rest of the equipment and personnel there are intended to provide fire suppression for the Oak Hills area.
Indeed, it is the county fire division’s devotion of Fire Station 305 to firefighting service outside the city that fueled much of the citizen opposition to the passage of Measure F.
Fire Station 305, at 18,478 square feet, is the largest fire station in the county. The city of Hesperia covered $4.5 million of the $6.7 million cost of constructing the facility. Those positing arguments against Measure F maintained that Hesperia residents had already made financial sacrifices to beef up the fire department and that they had been abused by fire department management and fire department union leaders, who had made hefty political contributions to three of the city’s five council members and had received overly-generous salaries and benefits in return. It is the excessive personnel costs that are an outgrowth of the salaries, Measure F opponents propounded, that drained the fire division of the revenue needed to maintain appropriate staffing, equipment and facility levels.
Nine firefighter positions were cut out of Hesperia’s operations after the voters rejected Measure F. Those three fire captains, three engineers and three firefighter/paramedics were not laid off, but were transferred elsewhere in the county.
The closure of Fire Station 301, the city’s smallest, will result in savings of $752,000 in the department’s $9.2 million budget for the remainder of the 2011-12 fiscal year, which ends on June 30. The closure will net the district savings of $1.4 million in 2012-13.
Councilman Mike Leonard, who closed out his tenure as Hesperia mayor last month, said the closure of Fire Station 301 was “brought about by a $1.2 million shortfall in our budget. Our fire district basically survives on property tax, and assessed value is down by 28 percent. There’s the problem. When times were supposedly good, we had false highs and homes were assessed accordingly. Right now they are assessed way lower and that is what is hurting us. We have a $1.2 shortfall and we can’t continue to supplement the fire department out of the budget because we would be out of money in two or three years. We have to keep our whole city operating.”
Leonard, who was a Hesperia firefighter himself before the city closed out its own department to contract with the county for fire service, has an acute understanding of the issues related to fire safety in Hesperia.
“What we did is we had to cut nine position from the department,” Leonard said. “We left it up to the San Bernardino County fire chief as to what to do. He could have done layoffs. He could cut one paramedic off all the engines. He did not do that. Instead he chose to downstaff one engine completely. He shut down the engine at 301 and since the engine is no longer staffed, he shut down the station and moved one paramedic team to 305. They respond from there now. I am not going to say eliminating one engine is better than downstaffing three engines but something had to give and from a certain standpoint, it is better to have full teams than teams that are cut by fifty percent each. I think the biggest problem is medical response is now different. We have moved our main ambulance away from the center of town. That is going to increase response times. People have to be aware. If grandpa is experiencing chest pains, they have to be more alert and call for help at once.
“We still have Station 302 on the east side of the city, where we have an engine and two paramedic ambulances,” Leonard continued. “There is station 22 in Spring Valley Lake, which is a county station, and it can cover our northeastern area with its engine. Station 305 in the southwest portion of the city is a combination county city station. We both kicked out money to build it. If there is a fire in the southern part of Hesperia, an engine from 305 is going to respond to it. If there is a fire in Oak Hills, the city of Hesperia is going to respond there. When I was with the city fire department, we responded to Oak Hills fires all the time. We still have auto-aid or mutual aid or whatever you want to call it. We don’t bill them and they don’t bill us. The fact is, Hesperia has never had the fire stations it needs. We have never been adequately staffed. And now the state has come in and further robbed our budget. I don’t know what we can do. The bottom line is dollars and cents. Property tax is down. We are not doing any development. What can you do? Apparently people have set the level of fire protection they want. I don’t blame people for not passing Measure F because I realize times are hard for everybody. It affects us all, the cut in fire protection. I hated to see Station 301 go. That was my career for so many years. I see what the fire guys are up against and I also see the other side of the problem. It is all dollars and cents.”