Firefighter training fund dispute threatens staffing in Calif.

By James Burger
The Bakersfield Californian

KERN COUNTY, Calif. — Adequate staffing of the Kern County Fire Department hangs in the balance after county supervisors balked at funding a new fire academy Tuesday.

Preparing for an expected wave of retirements, Fire Chief Nick Dunn asked for $1.2 million to fund a training academy for new firefighters in October.

The last time Dunn asked for academy money — during this summer's dramatic budget debates — supervisors told him to investigate ways to train new firefighters without spending more county money.

Dunn came back with a report Tuesday systematically ruling out every no-cost option — then again asked for academy funding.

Supervisors rejected the request and skewered Dunn for asking again.

The academy is critical, Dunn said, because a batch of new retirements is expected in March. All county firefighters must go through the academy because training standards vary from agency to agency.

If there aren't trainees to fill those positions, Dunn said, he will have to pay existing workers overtime to provide adequate fire coverage.

Supervisors said they felt Dunn was trying to trap them into funding his request.

Supervisor Michael Rubio asked how the Kern County Sheriff's Department can run a cost-neutral academy but the fire department can't.

Dunn said the fire department has already processed a list of firefighter candidates through the county hiring and civil service system — making those candidates county employees if they are picked to join an academy.

"We're handcuffed because we have an existing list," Dunn said.

But, it turns out, a no-cost fire academy isn't impossible.

The county could set up a program where the fire department runs an unpaid academy, just not with the people on the current list, said county Personnel Director Mark Quinn.

Supervisors accused Dunn of failing to aggressively explore new ways to hire firefighters.

"You're only handcuffed because (county staff) couldn't get into a room and discuss how to get around the system so we could call somebody a student," Rubio said. "We're being boxed in today."

Supervisors now either have to dip into county reserves to launch the academy or risk not having a properly staffed fire department next year, he said.

Dunn said he is "100 percent" committed to finding ways to change the system — but it will take time and he needs staff funding immediately.

Supervisors directed Dunn to investigate exactly how the firefighter shortage would impact the public.

And they told him to start the process of changing the fire department's hiring plan.

"We must look outside our history," Supervisor Jon McQuiston said. "When we build bridges, they can no longer be to our past. They have to be to the future."

The Bakersfield Fire Department does things similarly to the county when it comes to academies.

Would-be firefighters must have a "Firefighter 1" certificate, which they can get by taking a special course at a community college like Bakersfield College, said city Battalion Chief Garth Milam.

Then they apply and test for the city firefighter job. The city picks the best candidates and hires them. They are paid city employees when they go through the 18-week city academy.

The city fire department doesn't allow any lateral transfers from other agencies. Neither do the Los Angeles county and city fire departments, officials there said.

"If you're a firefighter out in Glennville you may never see a fire in a high rise or a building over 3,000 square feet," Milam said.

Californian breaking news editor Davin McHenry contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Bakersfield Californian

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