If budget cuts get any worse and UCSB is unable to increase funding for its on-campus fire station, Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. officials say rotating closures of local stations may threaten the university’s safety as early as January 2005.
County Fire Chief John Scherrei said if the funding situation gets any worse, the fire department may have to alternate shutting down its fire stations, including Station 17 on Mesa Road, which serves UCSB and Isla Vista. Station 17 costs $1.3 million per year to maintain. Scherrei said UCSB causes part of the budget crisis by refusing to pay for the station.
“It’s possible we may have to start closing fire stations down in shifts,” Scherrei said. “If we have to close a fire station down, then I’m going to include the university in that closure. We’re in very precarious times and we need some help. We have 700 responses a year [to UCSB and I.V.] and a lot of those are medical and false alarms, but some are legitimate fires.”
Land owned by UCSB is exempt from property taxes, which the county uses to fund the fire department. As UCSB expands, it creates more area for the fire department to cover with less funding to do so. Scherrei said the county needed to use money from its general fund in 2001 to help purchase the 100-foot ladder fire truck housed at Station 11 off of Storke Road that is used primarily to serve university-owned high-rise buildings.
Though the fire department currently has a balanced budget, Scherrei said if the state budget cuts increase or property tax revenues cannot cover necessary expenses, he will be forced to either circulate closures or lay off firefighters. Scherrei said he would know in January whether shutdowns will be necessary for the 2005-06 fiscal year, with the possible shutdowns being implemented in either January or June.
UCSB Fire Marshal Chris Wiesen said he feels that current service is excellent, and that the closure of a station would not significantly increase response time. He said Station 17’s temporary three-week closure earlier this year due to sediments in the station air ducts did not adversely affect campus fire safety.
“The impact would be minimal, very minimal, if they move their crews off campus,” Wiesen said. “It would increase response time by two minutes, if that. When [Station 17] moved out because of the [sediment], there was actually an increase in response: We had two trucks come. We already have a format in place. Engine 11 came from the west and Engine 12 came from the east and split the campus in two.”
However, Capt. Scott Alderete of Station 17 said closing a station would increase response time and reduce backup resources.
“As a firefighter, every time you close a station, you reduce manpower and the ability to respond to a situation,” Alderete said. “We’re already understaffed, so we’re going into a critical level. It puts the firefighters in danger and puts the public in danger. If Station 17 were closed, the next station responding to a call, depending on where that call was – UCSB or Isla Visa – would be Station 12 or 11. That’s probably an increase in response time of three or four minutes.”
Scherrei said he believes moving firefighters from one station to another is not the same as losing a station and crew for a day.
“Response time would be longer,” Scherrei said. “I’m talking about staffing. Those three people who moved to a different station because of health reasons were still on duty. I’m talking about a day when we have to shut a fire station down, and three firefighters are not working that day.”
Chancellor Henry Yang wrote in a statement that the university recognizes the difficulty that the fire department faces, but UCSB has also experienced financial cutbacks that will not allow it to improve protection it already deems adequate. Yang wrote that the university expects to cut funding for support activities, including facilities maintenance of Station 17.
“Despite the optimism created by the new compact for higher education for 2005-06, we expect to have to reduce support budgets again by another 10 percent in 2004-05,” Yang said. “We have had ongoing discussions with the county of Santa Barbara about fire prevention and protection on our campus. We are working cooperatively with the county to address their concerns, and ours, regarding fire prevention and the ability to respond quickly and appropriately to the threat of a fire.”
Scherrei said he thought the current arrangement between the fire department and UCSB to provide fire coverage in exchange for a station is outdated and can no longer ensure safety.
“Thirty years ago when UCSB had 10,000 people, we made an agreement that we could use their fire station on campus, and we’d provide fire protection,” Scherrei said. “Now, at times, the university has 30,000 people and fire protection remains the same. The system is broken and it’s getting very severe. They’re expanding and building more and they’re doing an environmental report where they say, ‘We’ve checked with the fire department and they say it’s OK,’ but that’s not true. I’m going to write the chancellor a letter and tell him we need to sit down and renegotiate this agreement.”
However, Yang wrote that the university has invested many resources in fire protection.
“We have taken a number of steps to ensure fire safety for our entire campus community,” Yang said. “The campus has invested millions of dollars in our residence halls and campus buildings to ensure that state-of-the-art equipment and materials for fire prevention and protection are in place. We have established an office with a fire marshal and an assistant fire marshal, who have provided training to residence hall and building occupants across the campus in fire safety and evacuation procedures.”
Scherrei said the fire department is struggling with budget cuts resulting from the state budget crisis, and that UCSB’s continued growth has only added to the problem. He said the university’s purchase of the Francisco Torres Residence Hall alone costs the fire department $50,000 a year in lost property tax revenue, and, though the budget is now balanced, the fire department is having to make sacrifices.
“Four or five months ago, I was a million dollars short,” Scherrei said. “We laid people off, saved money, cut overtime, reduced training – which is a big thing because Cal/OSHA mandates training – and cut travel. One of our stations has an avocado tree and we’re selling avocados to help pay the electric bill. The university has a responsibility for the health and welfare of its students and faculty. They’re assuming we’re going to be there, and we haven’t gotten a dime from them in 30 years. We need them to ethically consider their need for protection.”
Deputy Fire Chief Steve Vitton said Station 17 is already underfunded and understaffed. For several years, Station 17 has been staffed by three firefighters due to the lack of funds – one less than state occupational safety standards require for full staffing of a station.
“This department has been underfunded for years, and we’re looking for funding that will make this department whole so we’re not in crisis mode all the time,” Vitton said. “We do with three people what most other agencies do with five and there’s a high risk to our crew.”