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Cal Fire overtime used for ‘incidents,’ staffing shortages

By: Bruce Warren, Journal Staff Writer
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The Auburn-based Cal Fire Unit that covers Nevada, Yuba and Placer counties spent $550,290 in overtime for fiscal year 2007-2008. Cal Fire Chief Brad Harris said $356,990 of that overtime went for what termed as “incidents,” mostly forest fires that could be anywhere in the state, he said. Harris heads the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit on Lincoln Way in Auburn. His department was hit with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent furlough orders, which leaves the Cal Fire office closed on the first and third Fridays of the month. As a result, the business side of the Cal Fire office here will be closed two days a month, but firefighters will remain on duty. In the fiscal year 2007-2008, three battalion chiefs and seven captains earned $193,300 in overtime to mostly maintain staffing at the command center. Capt. Analee Burlew was the top overtime earner at the command center, making $35,706. Battalion Chief Doug Rinella of Truckee-North Tahoe topped all local overtime earners with $43,015. In 27 years of experience with Cal Fire, Rinella said this is the most overtime he has ever accrued. He attributed it to being held on duty, as other firefighters in his unit were sent elsewhere to fight fires. “Our entire department was held on duty at our normal work stations and as new assignments became available they would send you to another fire,” Rinella said. “A lot of guys were gone on fires for 32 days in Northern California and I was held on duty in Truckee for local emergencies. Essentially, the whole department was put on duty for a month from June 20 to July 19.” The rest of Cal Fire’s overtime, $193,300, mostly went to staff the emergency command center in Grass Valley that takes 911 calls for all of Placer, Yuba, and Nevada counties. The center requires a minimum staff of four full-time employees and must be staffed 24 hours, seven days a week. It dispatches for fires, medical aid and anything that the fire department handles, Harris said. Besides Cal Fire, the center has responsibility for 26 other agencies. “The command center is a critical fill for us,” Harris said. At one point Cal Fire was short three fire captains. The command center must be staffed by at least one captain and currently the budget allows for a center staff of four, Harris said. Capt. Wendye Stuller of the Loma Rica Fire Station volunteered to help staff the command center when it was shorthanded and earned $24,216 in overtime in 2007-2008, second behind Burlew with $35,706. It’s usually a 72-hour shift at the command center, but Stuller ended up working longer due to illnesses and staff shortages. “I opted to a 96- or 120-hour shift to help them out at the command center,” Stuller said. “The job I am doing is necessary. They have no one else to turn to. My family suffers when I have to work these long shifts. It’s a hugely stressful position. If anyone gets sick, it’s a 12-hour shift.” When it comes to dollars spent, Stuller considers Cal Fire to be a frugal spender of taxpayer money. “As a taxpayer myself, Cal Fire is really a good bang for your buck,” Stuller said. “We change our own light bulbs here. We can’t afford to abuse the use of money.” Stuller has 29 years of experience with Cal Fire and worked her way up from firefighter, to engineer and then captain. Last summer, she was sent to Mendocino County to help put out raging forest fires that resulted from numerous lightening strikes. “I spent 40 days and nights on a fire engine, fighting six different fires,” Stuller said. The Journal’s Bruce Warren can be reached at brucew@goldcountrymedia.com, or comment online at Auburnjournal.com.