Berkeley Fire Department receives $ 12.7 million boost as wildfire risk rises

A fire truck with the Berkeley Fire Department. Credit: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley Fire Department to have additional funds to prepare for wildfire season and provide enhanced emergency services after city council passed the 2021-22 budget this week.

More than $ 5 million of the $ 12.7 million in FF measure funds will go directly to emergency preparedness, including the drafting of a community forest fire protection plan, installation new evacuation warning sirens and conducting neighborhood evacuation drills and home inspections.

Other funds will be used to build a larger training center, purchase new ambulances, hire additional staff and invest in training and professional development, according to Acting Deputy Fire Chief David Sprague.

Click here for an overview of the Berkeley Fire Department FF Measure plan

“Basically we have the ability to completely rebuild our department,” Sprague said.

In November 2020, voters passed the FF measure, a tax on packages for emergency response and preparedness that brings in an additional $ 8.5 million in revenue each year to firefighters. This year’s FF measure money includes $ 4 million from the spring that had not been allocated.

How this year’s FF measure funds will be spent. Credit: Berkeley Fire Department

With little rainfall and California now in its second year of drought, meteorologists are predicting a terrible fire season. The high fire risk means there is more pressure than ever on firefighters to be prepared in the event of a major wildfire, Sprague said.

“It has always been a big concern for us. This is becoming more and more worrying every year, ”he said, adding that increased population density in the hills and drought conditions means increased risk.

In its original proposal for Measure FF, the fire department planned to roll out its new programs over time, highlighting the need for a new training center. But elected officials and community members urged the department to focus on priorities for the current fire season.

Starting this week, the fire department will begin hiring staff to write the community forest fire protection plan, do more home inspections, and begin to manage more vegetation, such as clearing branches. low or close to power lines. He plans to hold at least one fire drill by the end of the summer.

Before receiving the FF measure funds, the ministry estimated that it was only able to do 800 of the 8,000 inspections it would like to do each year due to limited staff and a freeze on data. citywide hires during the pandemic. The FF measure will allow him to expand inspections, checking homes for open vents that can leave embers inside or high-risk vegetation in yards.

One of the most controversial items in the budget is a “safe passage” program, which would clear some blocks for emergency vehicles. The plan could include limiting parking in the Berkeley Hills, either by “red belting” – painting parts of the border red – or making it illegal to park in certain places on high-risk fire days.

A “Safe Passages” pilot program was supposed to be launched in three neighborhoods in Berkeley Hills in 2019, but only one neighborhood – Arcade – has implemented it. In the San Diego and Alvarado neighborhoods, the program fizzled out, in part after what Sprague described as an “important community discussion” about lost parking spaces.

David Peattie, chairman of the board of the Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network, run by volunteers, said he would like more money to be spent on infrastructure development for a community disaster response.

“A lot of fires can be pretty darn unstoppable, even if you have a great fire department,” Peattie said. “I want to make sure that (firefighters) know that in a disaster they are going to be overwhelmed, so there has to be a community response in place.”

That’s why the Disaster Preparedness Network distributes free Go-Kits to the elderly and people with disabilities, and why Peattie’s priority is for neighbors to be ready to help neighbors in an emergency.

In addition to forest fire preparedness, the FF measure funds will allow the fire department to hire more staff and provide better training, including for those responding to emergency medical calls, who represent 70% of service calls.

The department also plans to open a training center in a new location. Currently, his West Berkeley training facility is located on a small lot in a residential neighborhood, which limits his ability to do nighttime drills and train for certain types of rescues.

The FF measure funds will transform the fire department’s ability to respond to emergencies, Sprague said. “Our department will be completely different in five years.

The city council will hold a working session on fire prevention on July 20.

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