ST. HELENA — Less than a year after hiring St. Helena’s first full-time firefighters, the city is looking to add two part-time firefighters to staff the firehouse during the day.
The City Council signaled its support for the staffing changes during a study session earlier this month. The package costs $234,450, which includes a stipend for firefighters who respond to night calls.
The shift signals one more step away from the volunteer/part-time model that sustained the St. Helena Fire Department for more than 100 years but has become less effective due to increasing call volume, high housing costs, and a shortage of firefighters who work in St. Helena and can respond to daytime calls.
Mayor Geoff Ellsworth said it’s important for the city and community to support the fire department because it protects St. Helena’s $2.5 billion in assessed property values.
“That depends on (the department) working correctly and being immediate in its response,” Ellsworth said.
The department’s 26 firefighters, who are technically part-time employees but aren’t stationed at the firehouse, would sign up to fill the two part-time slots: one year-round and the second during fire season between May 1 and Dec. 1.
The part-time positions would supplement the two full-time positions and – depending on the time of year – put either two or three firefighters on duty from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The hiring of two full-time firefighters last July has been a financial success, reducing salary and benefit costs by about $10,000.
City Manager Mark Prestwich estimated that the part-time/professional model saves the city $1.5 million a year compared with the cost of a fully professional department. He said the city should try to keep the model intact for as long as possible.
On the operational side, the full-time firefighters have brought the department back into compliance with standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, said Fire Chief John Sorensen.
St. Helena firefighters have reached the scene of fires and medical aids within five minutes 66 percent of the time, up from 41 percent under the old system. Responses of less than 10 minutes have increased to 95 percent, up from 86 percent the previous year.
Every minute counts during emergencies like fires and heart attacks, Sorensen said. Fires double in size every minute, and structural damage can quickly become catastrophic once the response time stretches past five minutes.