The city of St. Helena is expanding the fire chief’s hours and extending a part-time on-duty firefighter position, in an effort to keep the fire department’s unique staffing model viable.
The City Council on Tuesday authorized plans to expand Fire Chief John Sorensen’s workweek from 16 paid hours to 30.
City Manager Mark Prestwich said the chief’s 16-hour allotment – two eight-hour days – has resulted in numerous unpaid hours of work, with the chief personally responding to more than 400 calls last year.
The chief’s new schedule of three 10-hour days is intended to improve oversight, communication and recruitment. It will also compensate for the fewer hours being worked by Fire Marshal Jim Capponi, who retired from his 16-hour workweek and is now available on an as-needed basis.
Meanwhile, a part-time on-duty position created in 2019 will be extended to year-round instead of only during the peak fire season of May through November.
The changes will cost about $109,000 a year. The city will transfer $27,730 out of General Fund reserves to cover the additional cost for the remainder of current fiscal year.
The moves are the latest in a series of staffing changes at the St. Helena Fire Department, where the old paid-per-call model has been supplanted by a hybrid part-time/full-time staff.
The department converted its paid-per-call firefighters to part-time employees in 2016 and hired its first two full-time firefighters in 2018. The city made more staffing adjustments in 2019.
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The changes substantially improved response times, which are especially critical during structure fires and medical aids.
Response times under 5 minutes have improved from 41% to 66%. Response times under 8 minutes have improved from 76% to 90%. Response times under 10 minutes have improved from 86% to 95%.
However, the department has struggled to recruit and retain part-time firefighters. Overall staffing has fallen from 33 in early 2019 down to 22. The reduction in staffing includes five firefighters who retired and three who accepted full-time jobs in other departments.
Meanwhile, the number of on-call firefighters in St. Helena who can respond to daytime calls has decreased from nine to five.
The hybrid part-time/full-time model saves the city approximately $1.3 million a year compared with the cost of a full-time department.
The city spends $1.4 million on the fire department, which is equivalent to 9% of the General Fund. Comparable cities, from Calistoga to Petaluma, tend to spend 17-31% of their General Funds on fire services.
“We have a remarkably successful fire department,” Prestwich said. “The efficiencies that they bring are, in my view, almost unmatched across the state and probably the country.”
The St. Helena Fire Department is inevitably heading in the direction of a more expensive full-time department along the lines of Calistoga. “But we’re trying to slow it down” as much as possible, Sorensen said.
Councilmember Mary Koberstein said she wants to see a long-term plan on where the fire department is heading over the next five years, including succession planning, firefighter housing, and a potential fire protection district.
You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.