E. Contra Costa Fire Protection District may start charging for some services

People served by the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District may have to start paying for services that other people get for free. 

The department says it's been operating on a shoestring budget and voters have rejected several efforts to raise funding through bond measures. 

As firefighters with East Contra Costa Firehouse Number 52 respond to a call, Fire Chief Brian Helmick said they have an emergency of their own. 

"Three stations covering 250 square miles time and distance are our enemy. We need more fire stations. 

In order to do that, the district will be starting the cost recovery program. Chief Helmick said they have little choice. 

"The reality is that we are an underfunded fire protection district. The Fire Law of 1987 and the health and safety code gives agencies that are underfunded the ability to do cost recovery for certain services," Chief Helmick said. 

Under the program, the cash strapped fire district will soon be charging to respond to car accidents, hazmat situations, illegal burning and water emergencies. The news isn't going over well with some locals. 

"I think it's terrible," said Jeremy Keith of Brentwood. "I don't think it's a cost that should be passed down like that. Not in our favorj." 

The district currently has cost recovery fees for medical aid. Some fees can be waived for hardships and bills are handled through insurance. 

"When it's a vehicle accident it will go to vehicle insurance. When it's a home, it goes to home insurance. It doesn't go directly to the member, but to insurance companies," Chief Helmick said. 

"I think I'm for fire protection and if this is what they have to do to keep themselves going, then I'm for it," said Maurice Hernandez, also of Brentwood. 

The district turned to the program after three bond measures for funding failed to pass. A 2016 study also indicated the region needs nine fire stations to provide adequate services. They currently operate with three covering 250 square miles. 

They break ground on a new fire house in Oakley this week, but right now can't meet the state guidelines of five minutes for emergency calls. 

"Seven to eight minutes is the time we normally arrive at a scene in the best circumstances but it can be 20 minutes," Chief Helmick said. 

The district was forced to explore funding options outside of taxes and prove to citizens they can work with what they have. The program can be canceled anytime. 

"Once we get through every option we have, it's going to demonstrate it's not enough to provide adequate fire protection," Helmick added. 

The chief only expects to generate $50,000 from the program in the fiscal year. He also urged citizens who don't understand the program to inform themselves through the website or contact him directly and he'll answer any questions.