The Chula Vista Fire Department (CVFD) holds a rich tradition of service and protection since its establishment on May 2, 1921. Just over 100 years ago, 17 volunteers gathered at A.H. Skinner’s Hardware Store at 316 Third Avenue to stand up the City’s first organized fire department. They developed bylaws and all signed a contract stating, “I hereby agree to uphold these bylaws and carry out my duties as a member of the Chula Vista Fire Department”.
Much has changed since 1921, but some traditions have maintained a strong resiliency. To join the CVFD today, each Department member signs a similar oath.
As a Chula Vista Fire Department Member, my fundamental responsibility as a protector of society is the safeguarding and preservation of human life and property against the elements of fire, disaster, injury, or illness.
I will never allow personal feelings or danger to myself to deter me from carrying out my duties. I will to the best of my powers, recognize and uphold my responsibility and will respond to this responsibility at all hours of the day or night while on duty when those who I am sworn to protect need my help.
I dedicate myself to this before the Department, City, and Public, who have placed their faith in me and my chosen profession.
These words are intended to clearly show how the dedicated Chula Vista Fire Department members follow through on accomplishing our mission to protect life, the environment, and property each and every day. However, actions speak louder than words… Your Fire Department responds to more than 29,000 fires, rescues, and medical aids each year. They have saved more than $7,000,000 in property and contents from fire. Transported 19,000 patients to hospital Emergency Departments. Conducted 7,776 public safety inspections and 1,734 building plan reviews. All of this is accomplished through 10 fire stations, staffed with 71 personnel, riding on 12 fire apparatus, 2 squads, 10 ambulances, and 3 command vehicles that are supported by 35 Administrative, Prevention, and Training staff.
In 2016 and 2018, the citizens of Chula Vista voted to raise the sales tax to improve City infrastructure with Measure P and increase public safety staffing with Measure A. Both of these measures have made significant impacts on the ability for the Fire Department to provide service to the community.
Prior to the passing of Measure P, our fire apparatus was failing. This aging fleet was kept in service well beyond industry standards and therefore it’s useful life. In 2015, an assessment was done on five of our 13 fire engines to determine how many days they went out of service for mandatory repairs for every day they were in service. The outcome was staggering, with an average of 3 days in service demanded 1 day at the shop. This was overwhelming for the City’s Public Works mechanics and made it difficult for the Fire Department to ensure the proper fire apparatus were at each fire station protecting the community. This also led to increasing costs to maintain the fleet. Of these five engines, nearly all of them required $20,000-$30,000 per year in 2013 and 2014 for maintenance costs.
Since 2016, the City has been able to replace 8 fire apparatus and 3 more are on order from the manufacturer. With newer equipment comes reliability, improved safety features, and technologically advanced capabilities. These new rigs spend less time in the shop and more time responding to emergencies. They have cleaner burning engines, seatbelt sensors, and are ergonomically designed to reduce injuries.
When Measure A was passed in 2018, it was with the intent to address public safety staffing needs. The Fire Department is an all-hazard and all-risk emergency response force for the community when they have a problem they are unable to fix on their own. In the last 30 years, the Chula Vista Fire Department has doubled in size of fire stations; however, the number of 911 calls has more than quadrupled. Over time as this separation occurred between the number of fire stations and firefighters compared to the daily volume of calls for service, the performance began to decline. Acute medical calls demand the arrival of highly trained personnel with advanced life support equipment in a handful of minutes to stop and/or reverse the progression of ailments. To minimize loss of life and property damage from fire, the right number of firefighters must arrive within 6 to 8 minutes. With the size of Chula Vista clocking in at 52 square miles and a population of 287,000 people, it can be difficult to make these response times without the proper staffing.
Measure A has allowed the City to increase staffing on all fire apparatus from 3 firefighters to 4. This action has accomplished several things, it allows fire personnel to perform critical duties simultaneously instead of linearly. This in turn reduces the time it takes them to deploy hose lines to extinguish a fire, search a building fire for victims, and permits multiple life-saving tasks to be performed at one time for a medical emergency. These benefits improve outcomes for the community from fire and medical emergencies.
But there are a few more very important impacts of four-person staffing. Having a fourth person provides a safer working environment for our firefighters by ensuring they work in teams of two when they are accomplishing multiple tasks, which is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandate. It distributes the workload across one more person and provides a better surge capacity for staffing needs with more firefighters on the department. This reduces the need for personnel to work additional shifts and minimizes fatigue.
And finally, four firefighters on each fire apparatus reduces the time spent on a call for service. This time reduction equates to more availability and this in turn allows the same crew to actually run more calls. A study was done in 2017 over a 2-month period comparing our E51 with three firefighters (May-June 2017) to E51 with four firefighters (July-August 2017). The three-person crew ran 25 fire calls and 613 EMS calls totaling 638 calls for service and the four-person crew ran 17 fires and 641 medicals totaling 658 calls for service. Because of the fourth firefighter on duty each day during the study, E51 was able to respond to 20 additional calls and was available for an additional 24 hours. This is a critical point to adding a fourth firefighter, as the City of Chula Vista grows in density calls for service will increase. With this increase, calls will occur at the same time as one another more often. If you are the second 911 caller is the same area, your fire engine might be coming from the next neighborhood and delay putting water on a fire or providing life-saving medical treatment.
The new CVFD Ambulance Transport System
Prior to April 9, 2021, the City of Chula Vista contracted out Ambulance Transport for nearly 40 years. The basics of the contract require an ambulance to arrive on the scene of a medical emergency within 12 minutes 90% of the time; this also is the mandated response metric of the San Diego County EMS Authority. However, in 2015 the Fire Department began to recognize ambulance response times begin to falter while costs to the community were skyrocketing. Due to the archaic contract structure, the contractor had the option of increasing their rate by 7 – 10% per year depending on operating costs. Over the past 5 years of the contract, the contractor applied the maximum amount per year. At the time the contract was terminated, the base rate for a typical ambulance transport was $3,881.00.
Under the contracted ambulance service, not only were response times exceeding the county and contract thresholds, but a more concerning issue was that response times were unbalanced across the city. If you lived west of Interstate 805 and called 911 for a medical emergency then your ambulance would arrive within the time standard 91% of the time. However, if you lived east of the 805 your ambulance would arrive within the time standard only 76% of the time.
On April 9, 2021, the Chula Vista Fire Department assumed services of the 911 Ambulance Transport System for the City. We have corrected the imbalanced service delivery with each of the 10 fire station neighborhoods all exceeding 90% or more. Providing better service was the true driver for assuming services back into the City, and I am proud to say that we have accomplished this as well, but there is one more significant factor to share. We also lowered the transport base rate by $1,000.00 and we are financially solvent. Transport revenues are covering expenses, and we are on the fast track to paying off our startup costs. This City service, provided by the Fire Department, is a publicly run program that is out-performing our old contractor by way of improved performance metrics and cheaper cost to the consumer.
Future recruitment pathway(s)
The Fire Service is an amazing profession that at its core is there to put others first. Service and protection to others, day in and day out. There is very little that is more satisfying than helping someone in need. This truly is the essence of working for the Fire Department. For decades, the ability to be hired by any Fire Department was like hitting the lottery. For each opening at any given organization, there would be hundreds of applicants and this made every process extremely competitive.
This has waned considerably in the recent past, and every Fire Department in California is struggling to fill vacant positions. This is mostly due to the increasing qualifications required to work at a fire station, and the most difficult of these qualifications being a Paramedic License. The Chula Vista Fire Department hires both Firefighter EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) and Firefighter PM (Paramedic), but our greatest need is the latter. To become a PM, it can take as little as two years, but most likely three. The pathway to becoming a PM looks like this: you must take an EMT course and pass, then complete a National Registry test and become accredited by the county. This process can be as little as 3 months but commonly takes 6. You then must work as an EMT for one year to gain experience to meet most PM school’s requirements. Once accepted, PM school durations vary with the quickest option being 9 months and the longer course taking nearly 24 months. And then, similarly to EMT, you must take the National Registry and apply for accreditation at the county. Adding all of this up, the path to PM is approximately 3 years. This is a huge commitment but keeping the end in mind on becoming a joining the fire department in a dual role (FF/PM)… it is worth all the effort twice over.
This is the hurdle the Fire Service needs to learn to leap over. We are no longer that profession that everyone would do anything to become a part of. The goal of working in a fire station is a difficult one, and we need to learn how to engage with the youth of our community and show them that they can do this job, and here is how they can get there. The Chula Vista Fire Department is actively pursuing ways to accomplish this. We work with the Sweetwater School District and Southwestern College to collaborate on increasing enrollment in EMT and PM courses, as well as introducing young adults to the Fire and EMS profession.
The Fire Department is also working diligently to help mitigate emergencies before they happen. By studying trends in the community, we have developed programs to be proactive and educate the public to avoid these safety issues. Through the work of Fire Captain Mike Filson, the City of Chula Vista has a long-standing and robust Children’s Water Safety and Drowning Prevention program. Through is his efforts, youth drownings have been significantly reduced and years in between incidents. Another incredible part of this program is that it was put together in an open source format so that other Cities and Fire Departments and use all of our existing materials and customize them to their own branding. This allows the impacts of this great program to take effect in other areas for the greater good.
Another amazing program is the Child Seat Installation and Inspection Program. Developed by Paramedic Ben Harris, the intent is to increase the effectiveness of child safety seats by ensuring they are installed correctly, and children are buckled up properly. This effort has assisted countless new and existing families. Offered twice a month, Ben sets up a booth in the parking lot of our major malls (Chula Vista Center and Otay Ranch Town Center) and for hours at a time makes himself available for free inspections and installations. Nearly 7 families per weekend on average have made their way to Ben for his personal attention and professional experience. This includes families that already have children and those expecting a child soon.
On our radar and currently in development are two outreach programs: to educate the public on the opioid epidemic and how to prepare our youth for the dangers of this drug, and interacting with our schools and young ones with how to prepare for an active shooter through our “Stop the Bleed” program. Similar to how the Water Safety and Car Seat programs began, these new programs have been spearheaded by CVFD members who have experience in these fields and identified a need for our community.