The Santa Barbara County fire chief is worried he does not have enough people or equipment to contain a major fire at UCSB.
Fire Chief John Scherri said the university has expressed little interest in helping to pay $1 million for a new fire truck and another full-time firefighter – measures he said are necessary to potentially save student lives. UCSB’s administration said the existing fire arrangement has been adequate to cope with all emergencies.
There is one firetruck on campus, with two or three more trucks that can arrive in five minutes, Capt. Eric Peterson said. One of those trucks has a 50-ft. ladder mounted on it, while the others have 30-ft. hand ladders. Neither of those ladders can reach into high-rise residence halls or over obstacles. A 100-ft. ladder truck is stationed in downtown Santa Barbara; however, that truck could take 15 or more minutes to reach UCSB.
Nearby trucks each carry three firefighters. Legally, Scherri said, that is one firefighter too few for the first truck to send people into a building. Worker-safety regulations require two firefighters to stay outside and two to go inside.
“It is very critical that we get an apparatus that can reach and that we get enough people there to do some good,” Scherri said. “We have to respond with enough equipment and people on just about every kind of alarm, because by the time we call for help, it’s going to be too late.”
UCSB’s tallest dorms are 30 years old and do not have sprinklers, Scherri said. Many buildings are set away from the road, behind an obstacle course of lawns, paths and ramps.
“When the crew gets on the scene, there are a number of things they have to do,” he said. “They find out what they have – are they going to ventilate, are they going to do some search and rescue, are they going to snake out a hose line? Three people cannot do any one of these things well, and they cannot do all of them.”
Scherri said he wants a firetruck with a 100-ft. extension ladder and three firefighters to crew one spot on a 24-hour shift. The truck would cost roughly $700,000, while the firefighters would cost $285,000 a year. That kind of money is not available in the County Fire Dept.’s budget, Scherri said.
“We keep our rigs for 20 years. You don’t look at a firetruck and say, ‘We need to get a new one so we can have the new model,’ ” Scherri said.
UCSB Fire Marshal John Kennedy said the current arrangements have been sufficient. “We’ve probably had dorms on campus since 1955, 1960,” Kennedy said. “If you look back, the type of fires we’ve had we have been successful at putting out.”
Scherri said he worries about the fires we haven’t had. “I’ve had sleepless nights,” he said. “What has occurred here is the university sees no financial need to support fire services.”
In the last 10 years, UCSB has spent $75 million on fire safety in the residence halls, Chancellor Henry Yang wrote in a statement.
“Fire prevention and protection on campus have been the focus of our long-standing efforts,” Yang wrote.
Scherri said UCSB has not increased its fire coverage since the mid-’70s, while the on-campus population has tripled.
“Neither the county or the university has been able to keep up with the growth and now the pots are boiling over,” he said. “I have 29, almost 30 years of professional firefighting experience and I’m telling you, this is very disconcerting to me.”
Scherri said he has seen people die in high-rise fires.
“I have been to an apartment house fire, and the net result of that fire was several people were killed,” he said. “They were killed in the hallways. … Everybody thinks they’re an Olympic athlete and they can run away down the stairs. The problem is the smoke will take you out, and you won’t be able to get down. The smoke will eventually take your life with carbon monoxide, and when one goes down, you have a traffic jam.”
“It just takes one night, one 2 o’clock in the morning call, one cry for help and all of us will wear this for the rest of our lives,” he said. “It will be attached to our university; it’ll be attached to our county and to our state.”