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Doubts raised about Rohnert Park firefighting capability

Rohnert Park firefighters, who arealso the city's police officers, clean up their equipment after a dryer fire in an apartment on Camino Colegio in July, 2012.

JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 9:46 p.m.

It took only a few moments for the wood-shingled roof to erupt in flames.

It was July 4, 2011, a searing hot afternoon. Someone was shooting off bottle rockets near Glenn Manor, a Rohnert Park apartment complex. At least one hit the roof of a two-story apartment building, igniting a blaze that left 32 residents homeless and caused $1 million in damage.

Firefighters from seven agencies raced to protect adjacent apartments and put out the flames. Back at their stations, Santa Rosa and Rincon Valley firefighters told their chiefs they had serious concerns about how Rohnert Park's Public Safety Department had managed the potentially deadly event.

They voiced fears — echoed recently by other firefighters — that Rohnert Park public safety officers lack the experience, training and confidence to manage and fight fires as effectively as they should.

Such factors, officials at other departments say, mean their agencies often carry much of the burden at blazes in Rohnert Park, one of the few cities in the state whose officers fight both crime and fires.

To ensure the safety of their personnel, Santa Rosa and Rincon Valley fire chiefs have taken the highly unusual step of sending a battalion chief — a senior firefighter — when crews are called to Rohnert Park.

“There are definite concerns from our personnel on the organization of their fire program and the use of their resources,” said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Mark McCormick.

In the tight-knit fraternity of firefighters, whose members are loath to publicly criticize one another, the responses represent a startling mistrust of Rohnert Park's ability to fight fires.

Rohnert Park Public Safety Director Brian Masterson flatly rejected the criticisms, saying data commonly used to assess a fire department's performance show no evidence of problems.

“Let's look at the last four years of fires,” he said. “How many have we had? Have there been any significant injuries either to citizens or firefighters, both Rohnert Park Public Safety or outlying agencies? Has there been any major damage to buildings, to where the structure burned to the foundation? The answer is no.”

He displayed a report issued earlier this year that indicated his fire division's response times and results are equivalent to or better than average, when compared to similar-sized cities nationwide.

“You have to look at the proof,” he said. “If we're doing a poor job, then I think you would see lawsuits, you would see hue and cry from the citizens. That's not the case.”

Rohnert Park is one of fewer than five of California's 478 cities where police officers double as firefighters. The aim is to reduce the cost of providing police and fire services, but also to have a deeper bench to throw at either a significant fire or crime.

“We're maximizing limited tax dollars; we're providing good police and fire service — and looking at the performance measurements ... compare our statistics with the other big cities and we're right in there,” Masterson said.

Fire departments routinely assist their neighbors, often by written agreement. But neighboring officials say they provide Rohnert Park with more help than the city's fire division provides in return.

“We fulfill positions on their fires they would not fulfill on our fires,” said Herb Wandel, a Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District battalion chief who frequently supervises at Rohnert Park fires.

Firefighters from neighboring agencies describe arriving at fires to find Rohnert Park firefighters still working with hoses with no water flowing, police officers not yet in firefighting gear and Rohnert Park crews displaying a sense that they're waiting for someone else to take the lead.

That has led other agencies to take measures to compensate for what they say are the public safety officers' weaknesses.

Rohnert Park's minimum firefighting staffing, often two firefighters for each of the city's two engines, is too little to provide a fast fire attack for a city of slightly more than 40,000 residents, several fire officials said.

“Initial setup is where Rohnert Park has its issues,” Wandel said. “That initial hose deployment, the amount of equipment they're able to get on the scene.”

Also, Wandel and others said they see a department of public safety officers who are police officers at heart.

“They have a few individuals who are trying real hard and they have other individuals who are not committed to firefighting,” he said.

Lt. John Marty, who heads Rohnert Park's fire division, said the problem is largely one of perception. Though Rohnert Park's consolidated department has been in place for 49 years, misunderstandings persist, he said.

“I've heard it for my whole 25 years,” he said. “A lot of people don't understand how Public Safety works. I tell my guys, 'You have to be 110 percent better because they look at you differently.'”

Masterson, for one, believes the public criticisms are inappropriate.

“I think that goes against our code of ethics,” he said. “These conversations, those disagreements, should be done among the departments. They should not be vetted in the press.”

Sending battalion chiefs

But the city has heard the concerns for years.

Rancho Adobe, which covers Cotati, Penngrove and Petaluma's Liberty Valley, several years ago began sending a battalion chief to Rohnert Park calls “purely for safety” concerns, Wandel said.

After the July 4 fire, Rincon Valley and Santa Rosa met with Rohnert Park to voice their concerns, said McCormick, Santa Rosa's chief.

“We basically said we needed to train more together so we're all on the same page when it came to an incident like that, so we're all doing the same tactics and strategies,” said John Lantz, a now-retired Rincon Valley assistant chief who was at the meeting.

He said Marty acknowledged the concerns and agreed to increase training.

In a recent interview, Marty described that meeting as a casual exchange about six months after the fire, a length of time he said indicates how minor the concerns were.

The conflicts arose from the fact that his department's shift schedules had changed so they didn't correspond with other departments, Marty said. That reduced the interactions his firefighters had with those from other departments.

“It wasn't so much, 'We had an issue with what you were doing,'” Marty said. “It was, 'We don't know you anymore.'”

Santa Rosa Fire Deputy Chief Tony Gossner, who also was at the meeting, said the message was serious.

“Our message to him was, 'You guys need to get back into our training program or look for help with training or figure out how to help yourselves,'” Gossner said.

After the meeting, Santa Rosa and Rincon Valley fire chiefs began taking an unusual step that they don't take when assisting in other jurisdictions: They started sending a battalion chief to Rohnert Park calls to be sure their own firefighters were deployed properly and were safe.

“They said, 'You might see us down here, don't be offended,'” Marty said. “It was put to us as, 'It's a familiarity issue.'”

Eighteen months later, both departments continue to send senior firefighters to Rohnert Park fires, and Doug Williams, chief of the Rincon Valley and Windsor departments, puts the reason somewhat differently. His ranking officers brings additional experience and can help manage a fire, he said.

“(They go) to add some more depth to (Rohnert Park's) ability to manage scene safety,” Williams said.

It's a necessity, McCormick said, but a poor use of resources.

“Multiple different departments assign a chief officer to respond to Rohnert Park for fire safety of their personnel,” the Santa Rosa chief said. “That's an inefficiency.”

Rohnert Park officials satisfied

Rohnert Park's Public Safety Department has struggled to prove itself in the past — coming under fierce scrutiny a decade ago — and some earlier criticisms were justified, officials acknowledge.

“We were losing buildings,” Marty said.

But he and other city officials stoutly defend the current performance of the firefighting division.

“Certainly there were some stories about which nobody could be very proud. But that's back in the '90s,” said Councilman Jake Mackenzie, the longest-serving of the city's elected officials.

“This council member is satisfied with the professionalism of our public safety staff and we believe this is the model that works for us,” he said.

He and his colleagues aligned themselves solidly behind Masterson.

“Brian Masterson is an excellent director and expects complete professionalism from the people who work for him,” said Mayor Pam Stafford. “If the concerns being voiced were warranted, I just can't imagine that he would know that ... and not be addressing it.”

The unique structure of Rohnert Park Public Safety makes it difficult to compare with other cities' police and fire agencies.

The city's two fire stations, on Maurice Avenue and Country Club Drive, have one engine each. Day shifts there have three firefighters on one engine, including a captain, and two firefighters on the other. At night, there are two firefighters on each.

It's a stripped-down firefighting staff, augmented when necessary by on-duty patrol officers.

Three firefighters per engine, including a captain, is the standard at most of the county's agencies. Three per engine is considered a minimum necessary and four is recommended by National Fire Protection Association guidelines.

The Rohnert Park department is stretched more thinly than most, according to figures compiled by Rancho Adobe Chief Frank Treanor last year for his district's unsuccessful campaign for a fire service parcel tax.

Those figures show that Rohnert Park has, during the day, one firefighter on duty for every 9,000 residents.

By contrast, Petaluma has one per 3,666 residents; Santa Rosa has one per 3,700; the combined Rincon Valley and Windsor district has one per 3,500, and Rancho Adobe has one per 3,250.

Because the Rohnert Park model is to back up its firefighters with officers on police patrol duty, Masterson was asked how many officers are on shift at a time. He declined to give that number.

Others took lead

Not long after midnight on Jan. 21, a fire erupted in a carport of a Beverly Drive apartment complex.

Perhaps fueled by accelerant, the flames spread rapidly among the vehicles before it moved into the apartments above, eventually leaving 15 people homeless.

Some residents, including children, leaped to safety from the second floor.

Dispatchers alerted Rohnert Park, Rancho Adobe and Rincon Valley firefighters at 1:43 a.m. Rohnert Park Police Sgt. Dale Utecht arrived within three minutes and began managing the response.

He eventually asked for enough equipment from neighboring agencies to fight a three-alarm fire.

He also asked Rancho Adobe Battalion Chief Andy Taylor to direct the firefighting.

Rancho Adobe's closest station, in downtown Cotati, was closed because of budget cuts. So its fire engine came from Penngrove, adding almost fiveminutes in response time.

When Rancho Adobe's three-man crew arrived, at 1:50 a.m., one Rohnert Park fire engine with two firefighters had been at the scene for three minutes and water wasn't yet flowing onto the growing fire.

“A Rohnert Park engine was setting up ... for the attack and our guys came in and put ... lines to work. The crews from Rohnert Park jumped in with our guys,” said Rancho Adobe's chief Frank Treanor.

Marty said it took longer to get water flowing because his firefighters bypassed a hydrant on the way, thinking the blaze was simply a vehicle fire, which was how it was described in initial reports. They then opted to use water from the fire engine's tank to protect a second building from burning before connecting to another hydrant, he said.

“Which I think was a fine call,” he said.

Utecht's calls for help got engines rolling from seven other agencies. Santa Rosa sent the most: three fire engines and a ladder truck and 14 firefighters.

Santa Rosa Battalion Chief Jack Piccinini led the Santa Rosa contingent, which was larger than the combined team of Rohnert Park police officers and firefighters at the fire.

The events crystalized Piccinini's ongoing concerns. He praised aggressive firefighting efforts from the visiting agencies, but from his vantage point, Rohnert Park firefighters played lesser roles than their outside help.

“The only (Rohnert Park) firefighters we saw were operating a hose line in back. That was not critical,” Piccinini said. “In terms of actual firefighting, it was all done by all the other agencies.”

Marty acknowledged the Beverly fire was a big experience for some Rohnert Park firefighters.

“I had a couple of people, they've been here a few years, but first big fire ... that's your career fire, your eyes are this big and you're sitting there and you, yeah, you might need to give them a direction,” he said.

“Because let's face it, they're not a chief officer, they're a firefighter and they're doing the firefighter role, but they need someone with them,” Marty said.

But he disputed suggestions that his officers weren't active on the fire, saying Rohnert Park police officers and firefighters were fulfilling the event's crucial duties: including evacuating residents, commanding the resources of the incident, running the truck used to refill firefighters' air tanks and the staging point.

“We were all over the place,” he said.

Some confusion may have stemmed from the fact that some public safety officers remained in police uniforms rather than switching into firefighting turnouts, Marty said.

“They still look at, 'Oh, it's a cop, he's in a blue uniform,' but they were performing traditional firefighting duties,” he said.

“If you're not in (firefighting gear) in an active structure fire, you are not working on that fire,” Wandel said.

Utecht did not respond to several attempts to reach him for comment.

Questions of experience

Last Nov. 13, a mobile home on the west side of Rohnert Park caught fire. Rohnert Park Police Sgt. Jeff Justice was first to the scene and took on the job of incident commander.

He reported a fully involved mobile home fire, letting Rohnert Park, Rincon Valley and Rancho Adobe firefighters who were enroute know they wouldn't mount an attack to save the home, but would fight it defensively from outside and save nearby structures.

Rincon Valley's three-man engine from south Santa Rosa arrived first. The crew saw flames jumping from the front windows.

Rincon Valley Capt. Mark Dunn grabbed his gear and conducted the standard “hot lap” walk-around of a fire to quickly understand what was happening. While the front room was on fire, he found the rest of the home wasn't yet burning.

Dunn radioed Justice that they would go offensive, said Rancho's Wandel, who also responded.

“Rincon Valley evaluated and felt they could make a good stop,” said Wandel, who had agreed with the call.

Changing tactics completely altered the effort, he said. Firefighters went inside, put out the flames and saved some photos, memorabilia and paperwork.

Marty agreed it was correct to attack the fire, but defended Justice's first take, based on what he could see.

Justice also made the right call when Dunn, from closer to the triple-wide mobile home, saw another tactic was possible, Marty said.

“The IC (incident commander) said. 'You're seeing this from a better perspective, I'm going to go with you,'” Marty said.

Justice did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him for comment.

Other fire officials say the fire illustrated differences in command experience.

“That's where the experience comes in. You know how far you can take and push things,” said Williams, the Rincon Valley chief.

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