Soaring real estate costs pricing some firefighters out of the Bay Area housing market

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Long gone are the days when many firefighters and police officers could afford to live in the same community they serve. The Bay Area's surging home prices are forcing some departments to re-think how they can get first responders to live closer to where they work.

In one El Dorado Hills neighborhood at 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday, when most people are fast asleep, Robert Johnson is heading into work as a captain for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. His shift starts at 8 a.m.

"Honestly, the reason I get up as early as I do is so I can get on the road when there's fewer cars on the road as possible and I can get to work," Capt. Johnson said. 

On a weekday, he leaves earlier at 2:30 a.m. to avoid Bay Area traffic. He has to drive 144 miles from his home east of Sacramento to the Menlo Park fire station where he works. 

"Once I get to work I usually go back to sleep either in my car or one of the extra bedrooms that we have in the firehouse," Johnson said.  He said the strategy works since he's never been late to work.

 Eric Mijangos, a firefighter engineer and Bay Area native, lives in Folsom. He described his two-hour commute as the most difficult part of his job.

"Living here in the Bay Area the prices have gone absolutely through the roof," said Mijangos. "Gas, property taxes, homes everything. It's just going up and up and up. It's not letting up."

You don't have to look far to realize how expensive it is to live in Silicon Valley. Down the street from the Menlo Park Fire Station is a five-bedroom, three-bathroom home selling at $3.4 million.

"There's no way I can ever pay the property taxes on it," said Mijangos. "Let alone live in it."

According to the district, starting pay for firefighters is about $147,000 in an area where housing market website Zillow shows median home values are $2 million, a hike that is 15 percent higher over the last year.

"Our competitors are tech. Facebook pays their employees $10,000 a year to live within close proximity of where they work," said Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. 

Chief Schapelhouman said the district provides services to Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton and parts of unincorporated San Mateo County. He said 30 of his 80 firefighters live 60 miles or more away. At one point, a fire captain lived in Reno, Nevada. He's since retired. The trend is presenting risks, especially in a natural disaster which is a concern among firefighters.

"There's that factor," said Mijangos. "It's going to be time. It's going to take a couple more hours to get to work if something major were to happen."

Chief Schapelhouman said if a major earthquake or another San Bruno pipeline explosion were to happen, besides using all available local firefighters, he'd rely on mutual aid systems with neighboring agencies and if necessary the State of California to bring in resources.

He'd rather use his own people who are familiar with the jurisdiction and admits the further firefighters move away, the ability to up staff or relieve them is more difficult given accessibility.

"That's not in the public's interest," said Chief Schapelhouman. "It's not in the interest daily when you have a firefighter who gets sick for example. During the day we need to bring a relief person back in. It's not just the disaster that can create problems for you. It's leaves you don't anticipate, illness, family, other things, injury."

To help slow what he calls the "migration of firefighters" moving away, Chief Schapelhouman is offering stipends ranging from $200 dollars for fire staff who live within 60 miles to $1,000 a month for those who live within 10 miles. He said, it's an experiment that's helped in the past year. The chief is estimating the cost to the fire district at $240,000.

For firefighters with long commutes, he's now looking at expanding dormitories adding more bed space so firefighters can sleep. He said that cost is $440,000.

"It's not what we want, the firefighters don't want it this way either but it is what it is," said Chief Schapelhouman. 

Chief Schapelhouman said the only long term fix is if another recession hits causing the housing market to slow down. Meantime, he's hoping these solutions will "stem the tide" and he's anticipating more agencies will follow the district's lead.

"I would imagine I will commute for the majority of my career," said Capt. Johnson. 

Captain Johnson said he may re-consider moving closer if he's promoted within the ranks and can no longer work the 48-hour shift, four days off firefighter schedule.

As for Mijangos, he said he doesn't plan to transfer elsewhere since he's invested in Menlo Park and plans to power through the long commute to serve the community he loves.

"I've just been here and I enjoy it so much that I don't think I will ever leave," said Mijangos. "I want to be here for my full career."