The unprecedented natural disaster risk facing California demands a new commitment to investing in fire and emergency response capacity and sensible land-use and fire prevention.
So says the Blue Ribbon Task Force, an 18-member independent panel of fire service professionals in its first report on the 2007 Southern California firestorm. The report details more than a dozen specific recommendations to increase permanent state and local emergency services, build additional response to meet catastrophic needs, break down bureaucratic barriers between governmental agencies and establish a new commitment to fire-safe construction and land-use planning.
“The demands on our emergency response system, and the risk to life and property, are dramatically greater than they have ever been,” said Mike Warren, chief of the Corona Fire Department and chair of the task force. “California must adjust to this new reality if we are to protect the tens of millions of our citizens who live and work in harm’s way.”
The report’s core recommendations center around an urgent upgrade in the fire and emergency response capabilities at the state and local level. Specific recommendations include:
- Expand CALFIRE statewide, with permanent three-person staffing year-round and four-person staffing statewide during periods of highest fire risk. Establish reasonable standards of coverage for wildland-urban interface, and build strong statewide fire training program.
- Fund the purchase of 150 new engines by the state Office of Emergency Services. The OES engines would be deployed with local fire departments throughout the state, boosting local protection and providing rapid response during all disasters, including wildland fires.
- Accelerate the upgrade of CALFIRE helicopter fleet and redeploy functioning resources to local fire agencies as available to provide additional surge capacity.
- Establish a way to exchange real-time intelligence information among fire responders. Fund satellite or other cross-band real-time communication, so firefighters from different agencies can talk to each other.
- Establish a direct liaison between state and local governments and military to cut through bureaucratic delays in deployment of resources. Urge Congress to establish firefighting as an ancillary function of the military.
- Create a working group to develop a model hazard-reduction strategy, including specific fire-safe land-use guidelines, defensible space standards, model building and fire codes, and public education efforts.
“The same mutual-aid system that protects San Diego forests also answers the call when the Oakland Hills burn, the Delta floods or the ground shakes in the Bay Area,” said Lou Paulson, a Contra Costa fire captain and president of California Professional Firefighters. “Every Californian has a stake in a mutual-aid network that can respond quickly and decisively to save lives and property when disaster strikes.”
The Blue Ribbon Task Force, comprised of fire service labor and management and representatives of federal, state and local governments, formed in 2004. Its ongoing mission is to monitor implementation of nearly 50 recommendations issued that year by the Governors’ Blue Ribbon Commission investigating the 2003 Firestorm.
Last November, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the task force to look into what happened in the 2007 fires and recommend improvements in California’s fire and emergency response system. The high-priority recommendations for staffing, equipment and training have been incorporated into the governor’s proposed 2008-2009 budget.
“We’re encouraged by the governor’s strong support for fire protection at the state level and his support for building a stronger, more permanent and more efficientnetwork,” said Sheldon Gilbert, Alameda County fire chief and president of the California Fire Chiefs Association.
In addition to its specific recommendation, the report also includes a detailed update on the 48 recommendations from the 2004 Blue Ribbon Commission report. The task force also recommended that it be permanently established as an ongoing oversight council, to monitor and research issues arising out of the 2004 report and its aftermath.