Reserves Fire Up Department Staffing

By Marg Jackson, Escalon Times, February 2, 2005

Six new firefighters are on board at the Escalon Fire Department, reserves that are putting in time in exchange for some valuable training.

While the reserves do get a stipend for each shift they work, the training they get is even more important.

"After graduating from a fire academy, you have to put in one year in an organized fire department for training time and experience," explained Escalon assistant chief Terry Pinheiro, noting that the training has to be done before the firefighters can be hired on anywhere fulltime. "In exchange for helping us, we're providing a place for them to train and we help them get their Firefighter I certificate.

"We're not re-inventing the wheel, it's done all over."

This is, however, the first time that Escalon has taken this type of approach and the department currently has six recent fire academy graduates filling shifts as reserve firefighters. Each reserve is paid a small fee for each 24-hour shift they work.

"It's a food and gas stipend," said Pinheiro. "That's pretty much all it is."

Ceres resident Kevin Saunders graduated from the Columbia College Fire Academy while the other five are graduates of Modesto Junior College Fire Academy. They include Clayton Schemper, Orrin Nelson and Jose Menendez-Flores, all of Modesto, John Culhane of Dublin and James Dudley of San Jose.

"We're trying to increase the coverage during the day," added Fire Captain Randy Reid.

Since reserves sign on for a 24-hour shift, it has also increased the coverage at night.

"We increased the sleeping area with two more beds," said Reid. "We can accommodate four volunteers or reserves plus the paid personnel."

That level of coverage, day and night, benefits the community in that there are more firefighters responding directly from the firehouse on any calls.

"Almost every night, we run two or three people," Reid said. "They're putting in some time for us, we're giving them the time to increase their medical and firefighter training."

The program kicked off in Escalon at the start of the new year and Reid said the calendar is already full of shifts being covered by the reserves.

"They come to us fresh out of the academy after 12 weeks of training," Pinheiro explained. "They have all of the mandatory state requirements in training so with a minimum orientation period, learning our procedures and policies, they're ready to go."

The reserves are required to do 36 hours a month of pre-scheduled shift work, which can be done in just a couple of tours at the fire station.

While the reserves can step in ready to do the job, Pinheiro said the fire department still has a dedicated volunteer corps. It takes a minimum of three to four months of training, however, for a volunteer to learn the skills needed to respond, plus there is ongoing training for all.

But with the increasing state requirements for training, Pinheiro and Reid agreed that it is becoming harder for volunteers to find the time necessary to devote to the job.

"We're still very proud of our volunteers, the number of hours they put in," said Pinheiro. "The state requirements, though, and OSHA regulations, it's a whole lot to deal with."

The reserve route appears to be the way many fire departments are going to help bulk up the response.

"You try to staff the engines the best you can and this way has worked out very well for us," noted Pinheiro. "It's a win-win situation."

Year-end statistics for the department, meanwhile, show that Escalon firefighters responded to a total of 977 calls during 2004. That averages out to slightly more than 81 calls per month.

Calls handled by paid personnel only were 106, while volunteers were part of the response effort on 871 of the department's 2004 calls. That means volunteers responded to more than an average of 72 calls per month. Volunteer hours dedicated to the department for 2004 - on calls alone, not including required training - was over 2,380.

"Volunteers must do 50 percent of our training drills a year, plus there's five or six mandatory drills that they have to go to, mandated by OSHA," said Escalon Fire Chief Gary Augusto. "We do about two drills a month, roughly six hours a month in drilling."

During the year, the lowest level of calls came in during November, with 66 calls for service. Highest monthly response was in March, 98 calls. Included were medical aids, fires, accidents, public assists and more. The bulk of calls, more than 360, came during the day. Another 293 were logged at night, 277 on weekends, 28 on holidays. Five call outs for strike teams were answered during the year as well.

Of the calls that volunteers responded to, Augusto said it averaged out to be three volunteers per call, spending an average of just under 55 minutes on each one.

(Courtesy of Escalon Times Newspaper)