Is Patterson's fire department ready for everything?

Responding to concerns about emergency preparedness, personal, and public safety from Patterson City and District volunteer firefighters, the Irrigator looked into the concerns brought by Patterson’s firefighters.

The leading concern among firefighters is the lack of reliable type one engines. Patterson currently operates three type one fire engines that are 16 (Engine 1), 19 (Engine 2), and 29 (Engine 11) years old, respectively. PFD spends approximately $50,000.00 per year in maintenance.

A total that could be much lower affording more funding for training or for purchasing new equipment.

Type one engines aren’t the only apparatus (trucks) that the agencies use. There are brush, tender, and grass apparatus that are owned by WSFPD, and one rescue apparatus that is jointly owned by the two agencies. Each has a specific purpose, carries different equipment, and has limited capabilities. However, the type one engines are the most commonly used in cities because of their design for battling residential, commercial, and high rise fires.

Despite multiple requests for an increased budget from the city to cover the cost of replacing the type one engines, Patterson’s firefighters continue to use unreliable apparatus. Complaints that their concerns and requests aren’t being taken seriously are prevalent among the organizations.

A grant has been submitted through a program sponsored by FEMA. If approved, the grant will cover a portion of the cost of two type one engines. However, if the grant is not approved, the city has not approved a budget that will cover the full cost.

City Manager Ken Irwin did not respond to calls for comment.

Training and safety equipment

Of the paid firefighters, only two have training in trench and confined space rescue. With the exception of struts and airbags on Rescue 1, there is limited access to heavy rescue equipment. That’s significant because of Patterson and the Westside’s culture of farming and the immense expansion of industry and residential construction.

Trenches are dug by farmers and field workers for agriculture irrigation; utility employees are laying water, power and gas lines under city streets and in backyards; homeowners and contractors install underground pools.

Similarly, confined spaces include tanks, silos, storage bins, hoppers, ductwork, and more. All of these are potential dangers that those who work and live in Patterson are exposed to regularly.

Rounding out the equipment needs for the fire department is heavy crush rescue equipment. Heavy crush equipment like airbags and struts are used in collapsed buildings, trench/confined space rescue, as well as automobile accidents that involve semi-trucks and other heavy equipment to begin mitigating the emergency. Struts stabilize the crush so that emergency crews can remove individuals that may be trapped and more quickly provided life-saving treatment.

With a newly developed three-story hotel, aging downtown buildings, and a distribution industry that has brought increased trailer truck traffic, these different types of rescue equipment are imperative to their ability to respond efficiently and potentially save lives.

Without these different types of equipment and training in their use, residents of Patterson and those who pass through on Interstate 5 and Highway 33 could be subject to waiting for another agency to respond with proper equipment.

These types of calls are considered “high risk, low frequency”, and an argument could be made that since these types of emergencies don’t often happen, the cost of the equipment and the training required to use them is an expense that can’t be justified.

Regular training appears to have taken a backseat in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the firefighters who spoke with the Irrigator don’t seem to know why.

Claims that regularly scheduled “all-hands” training were canceled or postponed without clear reason even before the pandemic was unconfirmed by Chief Schali. He was unavailable for comment.

There was a consensus among all of the firefighters who spoke with the Irrigator about the need for more frequent training and the need for access to a better training facility. The training tower that stands at Station 2 doesn’t meet the department’s needs to train for structure fires effectively. They liken their need for a reusable structure, like a Conex Box or similar cargo container, to the police department needing a shooting range. The opinion of firefighters is, if they cannot run drills and train for the very job they’re expected to do, how can they be expected to do it well? 

The effects of growth

Booming processing, manufacturing and distribution industry, downtown buildings that are 100 years old, and residential neighborhoods that include multi-story apartments that stretch far beyond downtown’s Station 1 and even further from Station 2 leave emergency responders stretched thin. Residents can anticipate that response times will increase in the future if unaddressed.

Economically, Patterson’s growth has afforded the city a great deal of revenue, which has had the secondary impact of improved quality of life for Patterson residents. However, the growth that sustains the community also strains those firefighters expected to come to the rescue in emergencies.

The building that houses Station 1 is falling apart, and not even at the seams. Drive down Las Palmas, visible to everyone passing, is a large crack running down the middle of the building’s face. It can’t be missed. As time goes on and the building sinks further into the ground, the crack widens. Firefighters continue to fill it with expanding foam while they wait for the building to be jacked up.

Staffing and service

Patterson Fire Department personnel is comprised of 25 paid positions, according to the allocation structure provided in the city’s budget, split between Patterson Station 1 on Las Palmas and Patterson Station 2 on Keystone Pacific Parkway. Eighteen of those positions are firefighters and paramedics. There are currently two open positions in the fire department that are being covered by overtime funded by the city.

There are approximately 60 volunteers divided between both Patterson City stations as well as the five West Stanislaus Fire Protection District (WSFPD) stations: Westley Station 3, El Solyo Station 4, Newman Station 5, Crows Landing Station 6, and Diablo Grande Station 7.

The National Fire Protection Association is responsible for setting standards for fire departments. Specifically, NFPA 1710 “Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments” is used to determine the number of responding firefighters required for a given situation. This means just because the population increases, the fire department isn’t automatically required to hire more career firefighters. However, as the population increases, so do the number of calls.

For perspective, in 1991, when Engine 11 was purchased, Patterson’s population was approximately 8,800. The department responded to 269 calls that year.

In 2004 when the youngest of the type one engines was purchased, the population was approximately 16,900. The department responded to 572 calls.

Patterson now has an approximate population of 25,000, and since Jan. 1, 2020, the city has responded to 1,124 service calls, and West Stanislaus has responded to 666 calls. A total of 1,790 calls that equate to approximately 8 per day. Although there have been no staffing shortages reported to the Irrigator during the course of the investigation of this story, it remains a possibility in the future.

Corrections made on Aug. 21 at 1:10 p.m.

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