The goal is to prevent another tragedy like that which occurred in Oakland, where 36 lives perished in a fire
■ Mary Ann Morris / Editor
We have the potential to have an Oakland-type fire situation here in Hemet, said a somber Scott Brown, Hemet fire chief, during the Dec. 13 Hemet City Council meeting, at which he implored the Council for an advance on Measure U funding to implement strategies to prevent such a tragedy as that which occurred when Oakland city buildings were left uninspected.
“We lost 36 lives in the Oakland fire incident and as the story unfolds there is a very clear trail of bureaucratic disconnect on the regulatory side between building and safety, the fire marshal, and local city officials,” said Brown.
“I can tell you, and I think you are well aware, that we have a number of challenges in terms of our inspection activity. We currently do not do the state-mandated inspections that would allow us the opportunity to identify those life/fire/safety issues,” admitted Brown. “Specifically, it’s my intent to come before this council as soon as practically possible and come back with a robust plan, which we have been working on for the last several months, a cost-neutral plan, to ensure our compliance with all California health and safety code requirements mandating annual fire safety inspections. If we can do that with our existing contract staff, the capacity and the cost will be offset by our existing fees that we have in place and I will be prepared to provide those details if you decide to move forward, which is my recommendation.”
City Manager Alex Meyerhoff wanted to verify that Fire Chief Brown had been working on this plan before, and not simply as a response to, the fire in Oakland.
I can tell you, and I think you are well aware, that we have a number of challenges in terms of our inspection activity. We currently do not do the state-mandated inspections that would allow us the opportunity to identify those life/fire/safety issues.”
– Scott Brown Hemet Fire Chief.
“We’ve identified this [as a priority] in April and conducted a thorough feasibility study and squad analysis of where our weaknesses were,” said Brown. “We know how we got here, my opportunity is to provide you this information and come back to you with a plan to fix it. We think we can turn this around within a year.”
Councilwoman Bonnie Wright felt a report on the empty retail spaces in town would be in order.
“In view of the Oakland tragedy I would like, and perhaps it’s a future agenda item, a report on the buildings you feel are currently at risk,” said Wright. “Empty buildings, where we could potentially have the same issues.”
Brown responded that he will have a report for the Council soon including those data requested, and that hiring efforts will soon start to bear fruit.
“As of today, we have five candidates who are in full background, two firefighter paramedics will be complete, three more will be completed by end of this week, and we’ll have that eligibility list ready for hire,” said Brown. “Captain’s test is done. Battalion chief recruitment will open up soon; we’re moving very aggressively to fill our vacancies and address our operational needs.”
“That report sounds very glowing, but I think the fire department has a problem that it alone cannot solve, and that is a retention problem,” said K. Paul Raver, who resigned his position as council-member during a closed session after the regular session ended. “We cannot retain firefighters because we train them and then they move to other cities where their pay is much higher.”
Raver suggested the fire department invest in a salary survey completed to determine how best to entice firefighters to remain in Hemet.
“This type of situation costs a lot of money to train these people, have them go through school, put them through the job, and have them leave after a short time period; it’s very expensive. It’s serious enough that the council needs to look at this very carefully,” said Raver. “The chief has done an excellent job; I have nothing but praise for him, but this is something that he alone cannot solve. It is our responsibility to look at this in a very serious manner. I don’t like to spend money, but wasting it is worse.”
“I think this is a point well taken,” said Krupa. “We will investigate what both chiefs have discussed today and that their plans also include retention policies.”