Fire District Dilemma


Last updated 4/3/2020 at 12:37pm

Borrego Springs Fire Protection District Chief John Hardcastle has a real dilemma on his hands. The District is not only losing qualified first responders, but at the same time recruitment for qualified replacements is not showing encouraging results.

The reason for both is the same: Borrego-based first responders are being paid about 29% less than in competing agencies in the County and around the State, and our Fire District does not currently have the money to pay such higher wages.

One example of the fallout from this salary shortfall occurred on March 10 when, according to Chief Hardcastle, “A potential new hire with the start date of March 16 called to withdraw his acceptance of our Firefighter/Paramedic position in favor of another agency.”

A clear majority (56%) of Borregans approved Measure PP two years ago that would have increased District funding by $720,000 per year, more than enough to cover the wage shortfall now and going forward, but it fell short of the 2/3 majority needed for passage.

Measure PP was an attempt to raise a special parcel tax. After its failure to pass, Chief Hardcastle said, “It is unfortunate that the measure did not pass, and we appreciate the community support that the Fire District received. As cost increases continue to outpace revenue growth, a change in the services the Fire District provides may need to be considered.”

Two years after his prediction, a potential change in services is what Chief Hardcastle presented to the Fire District Board of Directors on March 12. There are, he reported, only three possible solutions to his dilemma:

Approve a Fire District special tax to provide adequate funding;

Lower staffing levels to three persons per shift; however, if the ambulance is doing a transport, that leaves only one paramedic on the fire engine, an ineffective and possibly unsafe staffing level; or

Reduce services. The Fire District must currently provide fire protection, but ambulance services are optional.

They could be eliminated by outsourcing ambulance service to a private company. The Fire District would still respond to medical calls with a paramedic on the engine, but the private ambulance company would be responsible for transportation to a hospital.

This option would require a cut in staffing levels from four persons per day to two persons per day – one Captain/Paramedic and one Firefighter/Paramedic.

Chief Hardcastle is now seeking an answer as to whether there is still time to put a measure on the November ballot to revisit the request for property owner approval of a tax increase to alleviate the need for cuts in Fire District services. If a ballot measure is viable, he will ask the Board’s approval, perhaps in a special meeting within the next few weeks, to include the measure on the ballot.