The Marin Professional Firefighters are comprised of members from nine (9) different fire agencies. All of these agencies participate in the California Master Mutual Aid System and they provide resources to help protect the entire State, not just to the citizens of Marin. In recent years firefighters from Marin and their apparatus have responded in the states of Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, sometimes for as long as 65 days at a stretch.
Although we used to have a time of year referred to as “Fire Season” which was typically from the month of June until October, the reality is that nowadays Fire season is nearly a year-round event.
Many things have contributed to our new reality – the effects of climate change, failing electrical infrastructure, years and years of drought with minimal rainfall, and more and more people moving into the interface areas. There are more fires burning simultaneously and the fires themselves move faster and grow larger every year; eight out of ten of the largest fires in California History have occurred within the last 5 years. The ‘Camp Fire’ in 2018 destroyed nearly 19,000 structures and resulted in 85 deaths. The ‘August Complex’ in 2020 spanned seven different counties and burned more than one million (1,032,648) acres.
Emergencies of this scale require an incredible number of resources to help contain and extinguish and the requests for help pour into our dispatch centers every year. The Marin Fire Agencies have always answered the call, but the tempo and the length of the deployments have become problematic; our Fire Agencies still have a responsibility to maintain safe and adequate staffing at our 35 fire stations here in Marin and to protect our citizens, taxpayers, and voters.
The truth is that the Marin Fire Agencies actually make money off of the deployments; the State and Federal agencies reimburse the municipalities for the labor costs of sending our personnel as well as for back filling our stations and they provide additional funds for the use of the apparatus as well as an ‘administrative rate’. The problem is that this profit is generated upon the backs of our L1775 members who are already severely over-stretched with working their regular 56-hour work weeks plus the overtime that is necessary to address the chronic shortages we face in staffing.
Because of the agency’s ability to generate revenue by accepting these assignments, nearly all of our agencies send four (4) personnel on each rig to go fight fires and protect communities elsewhere in the State even though they have chosen to staff the equipment here in Marin with only three (3) person engine companies and in some case dangerously under-staffed two (2) person engine companies. Unfortunately, we’ve also had some agencies choose to ‘Brown Out’ and temporarily close entire fire stations on a temporary basis when we have not had enough people to send out of county and to cover our stations concurrently.
In 2020 while Marin had dozens of resources out of county fighting fires elsewhere in the Western United States the ‘Woodward Fire’ broke out in West Marin; there was such a shortage of resources on hand that private, for-profit, non-professional fire crews were sent into Marin and their lack of training and experience resulted in a near-miss and significant injuries to their crews.
These assignments result in additional, long-term occupational exposures for our personnel and they are more prone to injuries. They breathe unhealthy air quality around the clock for weeks on end. They receive little rest, drive long distances, work long hours doing extremely physical tasks and their comfort and ability to recover is often an afterthought.
Our people respond on California Office of Emergency Services (OES) owned Fire Engines, on Local Government owned apparatus, in pick-up trucks and SUV’s as Single Resources and our people serve on Federal, State and Local Incident Management Teams, on FEMA and Regional Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, and on OES Water Rescue Teams. The County of Marin Fire Department is also a ‘CalFIRE Contract County’ which requires an additional, significant, commitment of apparatus and personnel early on in major incidents
They do so because they are committed to helping those who need it, even when it requires significant sacrifice on their part. But there has to be a better balance. We have to look at shorter crew rotations, more apparatus that is staffed using a mix of personnel from separate agencies, better recovery time in incident or agency-provided hotels, better work-rest periods, and how to address the long-term effects of the occupational exposures they suffer from.
Mutual Aid is an important part of the fire service here in Marin and it provides valuable experience and qualification opportunities for our members, but it cannot be more important than taking care of our people and protecting the residents and properties here in Marin.