East Bay firefighters will enter burning buildings only to save 'human life'

If you live in the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District, the fire marshal says he hopes you have insurance if your house is on fire.

That's because, the fire district, which encompasses 249 square miles of Brentwood, Oakley, Discovery Bay, Bethel Island, Knightsen, Byron, Marsh Creek, and Morgan Territory announced on Thursday that they will only send crews into a home if someone is inside and "human life is at risk."

Otherwise, explained Fire Marshal Steve Aubert, crews will fight the fire from outside the home. The change will take place on July 1. 

"We hope you have insurance," he said.

The move to keep firefighters out of burning homes is to address the lack of funding and a higher number of injuries he said firefighters are facing.

The district's budget is about $14.8 million, he said, which isn't enough to keep up with the growing number of people living in the eastern part of Contra Costa County. 

He said his district has never undertaken such a policy before and "we don't sign up for this job to watch people's homes burn."

But he said the risk to firefighters is too great.

He emphasized that it's not as if firefighters won't answer 911 calls or show up to a burning structure. It's just that unless there is someone who needs help inside, crews will battle the blaze from the roof, the yard and anywhere outside the home. 

Tim Ogden, city manager for Brentwood and also a homeowner there, said he understands that the funding situation is having "negative effects on the fire district."

But he also said that he believes the sound of the new approach "is possibly worse than it really is." 

However, Ogden said the mutual aid assistance has been critical and its decreased participation could have a more critical impact on homeowners.

At its peak, Aubert said there used to be nine fire stations all helping to quell flames in the area. Now there are three.

That means his fire crews are "being forced to spread themselves" across a vast expanse of territory and its " pushing our firefighters to their limits as they respond to twice as many calls for help."

He added that there is also the extra strain of unbalanced “automatic aid” agreements with other county fire departments that he said is becoming unsustainable.

In a statement, Fire Chief Brian Helmick warned the public that they should also expect delayed response times.

He aid that his department is working to address its funding shortfall and urging leaders to renegotiate developer fees that he said should have been put into place decades ago. 

Aubert insisted that this move is "not a scare tactic."

"Our firefighters are tired. We've been trying to work this out for the last almost 10 years," said Aubert. "We don't have any more to give."