In a 3-2 vote, Riverside County supervisors today adopted a standard in which all county fire engines will have a minimum of three firefighters on board, including a captain, to lessen the risk of having an inadequate number -- or under-experienced -- crews responding to emergencies.
Supervisor Jeff Stone introduced the "Firefighter Installation on Riverside County Engines" -- FIRE -- policy, citing statistics that show three-person staffing ensures greater protection for both civilians and firefighters.
"When you have two-man crews, there are more workers' comp-related injuries and higher morbidity," Stone said. "We're talking about minimum standards ... A three-man crew with a captain and an engineer ensures (crews) have the best chance of dealing with a fire."
The Board of Supervisors established three-person engine staffing as the norm in 2000, according to Chairman John Tavaglione, who said he realized then that it was necessary for public safety.
Stone's FIRE policy reaffirms the practice for the future, with the added requirement that a captain be aboard each engine.
"You need that historical expertise to make sure you save the people inside that (burning) house," Stone said. "This is a minimum, not a maximum standard. Four-man crews are still the best."
County fire Chief John Hawkins, now in his 48th year as a fireman, agreed, saying a three-person crew was "critically important" in rescues, building and house fires, where one crew member can be held in reserve for communication and coordination purposes.
However, Supervisors Bob Buster and John Benoit questioned the impact of a countywide standard that could lead to higher costs, particularly for cities that contract with the county for fire protection services.
Lake Elsinore and Wildomar contract for fire services. It was not clear at press time how much, if any, financial impact there would be on the cities as a result of the new standard.
The supervisors noted that more than 80 percent of 911 calls are for medical aid, even though fire engines are required to roll to them.
"I'm always struck by the fact that politicians, who are not the experts in the field, set these kinds of standards," Buster said. "Would this board get into the business of telling the sheriff how many deputies have to be in a patrol car?"
Buster said Stone's proposal "reeks of union influence" and seemed to be aimed at currying favor with firefighter union interests before the November election. Both Stone and Buster are up for re-election this year.
Stone said he resented Buster's suggestion and dismissed it.
Benoit said he, too, was "troubled" by the timing of the FIRE proposal, which the supervisor believed should have been postponed until budget hearings in March.
"This is an unnecessary policy," Benoit said. "To have this talk outside of budget discussions is inappropriate."
About a year ago, the board briefly considered reducing engine staffing from three to two at some fire stations as county officials examined ways to pare down the fire department's $4 million 2010-11 fiscal year budget deficit. There was also discussion of shuttering a half-dozen stations, including two in Benoit's district, to save money.
The board rejected both proposals.
Buster argued that the FIRE policy would hinder cities, such as Canyon Lake, that are trying to reduce their public safety costs. But Tavaglione and Supervisor Marion Ashley sided with Stone, saying safety considerations had to come first.
"I'm really concerned that if we let the standard down, we'll lose some lives and put the public in jeopardy," Ashley said. "When we come to the budget discussion, I'm sure we'll talk about all of this again."