Seeking funds to fight fire


Firefighters battle a blaze Feb. 24 at a modular home near the Eagle Claw Liquor Store on Highway 491 south of Cortez. The home and the possessions inside were saved. Photo by Rob Hall / Cortez Fire Protection District

Fire and rescue services are a type of community insurance that help mitigate life’s inevitable disasters.

For the Cortez Fire Protection District, safeguarding a growing population comes with rising costs, prompting a proposed increase in the group-coverage rate.

The district, which covers a residential and business population of 14,000 people in and around Cortez, will ask voters in May to approve an additional 3.5 mills on the special district’s tax rate, levied against market property values. Currently, the mill levy is set at 6.5 mills.

If the request is approved, an additional $500,000 per year would be added to the district budget to hire more staff to cover an increasing volume of often-overlapping emergency calls, pay for firefighter equipment and training, and help to replace outdated fire engines.

“Between 2008 and 2011 we saw an increase of 1,000 calls, and that is due to a bigger population, and an aging population,” said Chief Jeff Vandevoorde. “A lot of our calls are for emergency medical service, and more recently the calls for people needing help — from traffic accidents to structure fires — come back-to-back.”

Crews can be stretched thin during simultaneous calls for assistance, he said, and the extra funding will allow the district to expand its manpower and respond better to multiple emergencies.

According to a five-year plan stipulating how the extra funds would be spent, an additional firefighter would be added to each station shift, bringing the total to four emergency personnel, plus trained volunteers on call.

The increased firefighter need is attributed to more people, expanding subdivisions, increased traffic accidents during tourism season and deteriorating buildings. In 2008, the district responded to 440 emergencies. In 2009 the number more than doubled to 1,086 calls. Last year the Cortez fire crews responded to 1,585 calls for service.

“It would be a big help for the community to put more people on duty, because we won’t have to wait for volunteers to come to the station and get more vehicles out when we get multiple calls,” Vandevoorde said. “Without a mill-levy increase, it would be hard to get the equipment we need and we could be looking at cutting manpower.”

Extra revenue will help ensure that there are paid firefighters at the station 24/7 to cover emergency calls more quickly, fire officials said. (See Free Press, Nov. 2007, news/2007/110702.htm)

That improvement of in-house emergency staff has paid dividends for public safety, explained Assistant Chief Charles Balke.

“A prime example is when we responded to a person with cardiac arrest last year and were there within a minute and half. We brought him back from a lethal rhythm, and he survived. If it had gone a couple more minutes without life-saving intervention, he would not be here today,” Balke said.

In another instance last month, having paid staff in the station allowed crews to quickly respond to and extinguish an attic fire, saving most of the residence, Balke said. Without the paid crews, volunteers would have to take critical time to arrive at the station from home or work.

The availability of an extra firefighter on shift due to the increased mill will improve response time and fire-crew safety, especially in rural areas, officials argue.

“The advantage of the extra firefighter is that we will have the staff at the station to send out an engine and a water truck, at the same time, into the rural areas that don’t have the water supply,” Balke said. “Doing it right now with the limited staff causes increased safety concerns because there is a time-frame in which we’re waiting for additional equipment. Our priority is the community, and also to make sure our personnel go home safely because the job is dangerous.”

For a house with a market value of $100,000, the proposed tax increase of 3.5 mills translates to $27 more per year. It’s $41 extra for a $150,000 house and $55 more per year for a $200,000 home.

The last time the District raised the mill levy was in 1994. When that mill-levy sunset, the voters approved continuing it a the lower rate of 2 mills in 2002. The fire district’s budget is directly tied to the market value of property taxed within the district boundaries, and those values have been plunging lately. The result for the 2011-2012 budget is an $80,000 shortfall, officials said.

“We are not like Empire Electric or the recreation center, who can raise rates to offset rising costs,” Vandevoorde said. “Our budgets keep going down, while the costs and demand keep rising, so we are asking for the public’s help.”

Firefighter safety is also at stake, officials said, and gear must be updated to comply with the National Fire Protection Association. Equipping staff with heavy-duty protective suits, oxygen breathers, helmets, radios and thermal-imaging cameras cost more than $7,000 per firefighter.

National standards also dictate the lifespan of fire engines, and Cortez has two that are approaching that replacement deadline, according to the fire district. Fire engines cost between $400,000 and $600,000 and ladder trucks can run up to $1 million.

Part of the five-year plan is improving training for hazardous-materials accidents. Highway 160/491 is a major hazardous-materials corridor, and having the certification to clean up toxic substances such as radioactive and toxic chemicals to deadly gases and flammable fuels is critical, officials said.

“Every day we have extremely hazardous products being transported right through our community,” Balke said. “Being somewhat isolated, we have to look at ways of upgrading our hazardous-materials response capability, and that benefits everybody.” Participants in the Citizens Fire Academy, including this reporter, watch a truly dreadful video on the dangers of too-little training on hazardous materials.

A camera mounted in a police cruiser shows an overturned tanker spewing chlorine gas with the driver lying dead on the road. Unaware, the officer rushes into the cloud of white smoke to provide medical assistance, but falls to his knees and is killed within seconds from the deadly gas.

A few moments later, fire crews arrive, and the video shows their restraint in entering the scene until suited up with proper suits and oxygen tanks.

Saving lives and property requires expensive equipment, involves extensive technical and medical training, and is labor-intensive, officials say. The community insurance pool that funds the Cortez Fire Protection District makes it happen, and it pays dividends for citizens when misfortune inevitably comes knocking.

“We have a very specific five-year plan on how to spend the money and that is a promise we will keep. We encourage the public to come in and take a look at it, so they know we are not asking for a blank check,” Vandevoorde said.

“As a full-service department, we are not just firefighters. We also do emergency medical, special rescue, hazardous-materials response, inspections, community education, CPR training and the Citizens Fire Academy.”

The mill-levy proposal will be part of a mail-ballot election for district residents. Voters must turn in the ballot by May 8.

From March 2012.