By JULIE JOHNSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Fire stations in two Santa Rosa neighborhoods this week have put away the “Closed Today” signs that for more than two years had been posted on the doors for about half of each week.
With nine new recruits starting jobs funded for two years by a $2.6 million federal grant, one of the most visible signs of the city’s financial crisis is gone.
“That’s one more paramedic on the street, one more fire engine that can respond to an accident,” Deputy Fire Chief Tony Gossner said.
Station 11 on Lewis Road in the Santa Rosa Junior College neighborhood and Station 10 on Corporate Center Parkway serving southwest Santa Rosa are now open every day.
The new firefighters completed Santa Rosa’s fire academy training program April 26 and were were honored that evening at a badge-pinning ceremony at the Finley Community Center. They began filling shifts Monday.
Four of the new firefighters are military veterans. Their positions are funded for a third year with an additional $600,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The city also filled five vacant fire department positions created by retirements and made several promotions. About 20 fire personnel are expected to retire in the next two years, including possibly five by the end of this summer.
“It’s a significant turnover, so we’re really ramping up and planning so we have people qualified to fill those positions,” Fire Chief Mark McCormick said.
City officials also are also researching other grants and considering whether it’s worth revisiting a previously rejected annual emergency services fee of $4 for homeowners.
Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley said keeping the fire stations open full-time is a priority.
“We don’t have these stations because they’re convenient; we have these stations because studies and analysis have shown we need them,” Bartley said.
A 2004 Grand Jury report urged the city to quickly relocate and build new stations to address the city’s growth. At the time of the report, the last station to open had been in 1982, Station 2 on Stony Point Road.
The city’s population grew from 88,100 in 1982 to 151,900 in 2002, according to the grand jury. The current population is about 170,000.
Station 10 opened in March of 2006 to help serve the Roseland neighborhood, where response times had been the worst in the city. Station 11 became fully operational in March of 2009.
But by then the city was grappling with sinking revenues and was looking to each department for cuts.
Station 11 had been open four months when the two stations were partially closed, starting July 7, 2009.
With the so-called brownouts, each station was open for two days at a time on an alternating schedule.
The closures meant the city had one less engine and crew available each day.
“We’re a fairly good-sized city and when one engine is out of service you feel it,” Gossner said.
About six months after the brownouts began in July 2009, fire response to a January 2010 blaze at a downtown Victorian home was delayed by nearly two minutes, then-Fire Chief Bruce Varner told the Press Democrat at the time.
The Cherry Street home was in Station 11′s district and the next closest engine crew from Station 1 was busy with a major injury collision, fire officials said.
The next-closest engine, from the Stony Point Road station, arrived almost five minutes after the fire was reported. That falls within the federal standards, but the small bungalow, an unoccupied rental, was essentially destroyed.
McCormick wouldn’t point to a more recent incident in which the brownouts hindered response, but said they have hampered the city’s efforts to reach federal standards that state fire response should be under five minutes 90 percent of the time.
When Station 11 was closed, fire personnel arrived to calls in that district within five minutes only about 59 percent of the time, McCormick said. When it’s open, that number boosts to 80 percent of the time.
“Delayed responses definitely have an effect on our ability to suppress a fire at an early stage to reduce damage and getting there as soon as possible increases the survivability of a patient,” McCormick said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or email@example.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.)