Of chief concern
Interim fire chief reimagines how department serves Chico
When it comes to fire protection, Chico isn’t quite like its neighboring rural communities, particularly given the makeup of its downtown and the south campus neighborhood, where a fire could leap between tightly packed businesses or Victorian houses and destroy an entire block in a flash.
During an interview at Fire Station 1 on Salem Street, Interim Fire Chief Shane Lauderdale said he’s acutely aware of the fire risks specific to Chico’s core.
“Some people look at Butte County Fire Department and say, ‘Wait a minute, they offer fire protection with a two-person engine company; why can’t we do it here?’ Well, we have a different fire-protection profile than Butte County,” he said. “Here, we have a fire problem much more like a bigger city, but we’re not a big city. We have the threat of concentration.”
Lauderdale, 47, admitted that, since former Interim Chief Keith Carter retired in April and he assumed the department’s top spot, it’s been a challenge to “tailor a fire-protection model to this community.”
In his early tenure as chief, he’s been tasked with providing Chico with better fire protection on a tight budget, a challenge he has risen to by all accounts, said Interim City Manager Mark Orme.
“Traditional modes of operation in local government are what people tend to lean toward,” he said. “But a creative approach to serving the public with the limited resources we have is going to be the trend in the future, and I see that Chief Lauderdale is willing to work with his firefighters in looking for solutions.”
Perhaps the best example of the department’s willingness to adapt is a pilot program set to launch July 1. Dubbed the Fast Response Squad, a two-person team will be assigned to a “mini fire engine” on a pickup-truck frame that will respond to medical emergencies in the downtown area, in place of sending out a full-sized fire truck.
Using the pickup could be a huge cost-saving measure. Of incidents firefighters responded to last year, more than 96 percent didn’t involve a fire, according to a department report.
The pilot program was made possible by a $5.3 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant secured in February. With the funding, the department has hired 14 first-time firefighters, who will graduate during a ceremony in the City Council Chambers on Friday (June 27).
The boost in staffing will reduce overtime hours, Lauderdale said, and help keep the department’s yearly compensation for overtime under $300,000, as per Chico City Council mandate.
Even with the new firefighters—which will bump the numbers to 66 firefighters over five stations—Chico will fall short of per-capita industry standards, which call for seven fire stations, each staffed by 28 firefighters, for a city of Chico’s population, Lauderdale said.
“But that’s unaffordable, and we all know that,” he said. “So, instead of having that large standing army of firefighters, we’re going to focus on special forces. We’re going to have a smaller, leaner, meaner organization.”
Chico Fire’s ailing fire trucks also represent a pressing need. The department’s two quint ladder trucks—equipped with rescue equipment, a water tank and a pump—are well past their expiration dates. The trucks should be replaced every 10 years; truck 5 is 13 years old and spent more than 200 days undergoing repairs this past year. Meanwhile, truck 1, also more than 10 years old, isn’t in much better shape. There was a recent 60-day stretch in which both trucks were out of commission.
“In this community in particular, that risk is not acceptable,” Lauderdale told the council during last week’s budget session. The panel approved the purchase of a $1.2 million fire truck, and while that doesn’t sound like much of a cost-saving measure, it is—the new truck will effectively replace both truck 5 and a fire engine the department has been lacking since 2010. Lauderdale hopes to place the order by July 15, and the truck should be delivered in 10 to 12 months.
The task of appointing a permanent fire chief is the city manager’s. Should Lauderdale apply, Orme said, he would “absolutely” be considered for the job.
“I have no reason to doubt his ability and competence level to lead that department,” he said. “Nothing has led me to believe otherwise.”