Why doesn’t the Lodi Fire Department use volunteers? Why aren’t police officers and firefighters trained to perform each other’s jobs? Why don’t the smaller rural fire districts consolidate with a larger fire department such as Lodi’s?
Having heard these questions and others before, Lodi Fire Chief Gene Stoddart discussed some common suggestions for making fire services more efficient with the News-Sentinel.
While he has heard of cities cross-training police officers and firefighters, Stoddart does not believe it would work in Lodi as it would likely be too expensive and time-consuming to train someone in both highly-specialized jobs.
“I can’t even imagine (a police officer) also putting in the time to also be trained as a firefighter,” Stoddart said. “I don’t think it’s efficient, I don’t think it’s safe, I don’t think it’s good for the service of this city.”
Lodi Police Chief Tod Patterson said that while he has not given much thought to cross-training police officers and firefighters, he does have some concerns about the idea.
“There are so many different areas of expertise that are needed in specific jobs, whether that’s police work or firefighting,” Patterson said. “I just wonder if it went on for a length of time, would you lose your expertise?”
Despite his initial concerns, Patterson said that cross-training first responders could have some potential benefits such as increasing the number of police officers and firefighters available to respond to emergencies.
“It could make sense, because you could have more staffing on the streets,” Patterson said. “Not knowing much about it, there could be some sense to it during certain parts of the year.”
Although Stoddart has been the official chief of the Lodi Fire Department since March 2018 after stepping in as interim chief in October 2017, he began his career as a volunteer at a rural fire district with between 20 and 25 other volunteers.
“I remember racing to the fire station to get on an engine. If you got there later than the other guys, you missed you chance to take those calls,” Stoddart said. “Now, some departments don’t even have volunteers anymore.”
As the training requirements for firefighters — even volunteers — have increased, Stoddart said fewer and fewer people have the time to dedicate to training as they must also balance their working at their jobs and spending time with their families.
“Back in the day, you had a lot of farmers that could jump off of their tractors and come help out, but society has changed,” Stoddart said. “People are spending more time with their families, and I think that’s a good thing, but it has left us with a lack of volunteers.”
Although Lodi Fire regularly trains with several rural fire districts in the surrounding area, Stoddart does not believe it would be feasible for his department to absorb one or more of those districts altogether.
“For us to take over one of them would be a challenge,” Stoddart said.
While rural fire districts will most likely not be consolidating with Lodi Fire any time soon, at least one neighboring community has had success consolidating their own fire services with a larger department.
Eugene Palazzo has only been Galt’s city manager for three years, he said, but the city’s fire services have been consolidated with the Cosumnes Community Services District — which has two fire stations in Galt along with six stations, a training center and its headquarters in Elk Grove — for much longer than that.
“They’ve been very receptive to what our needs are,” Palazzo said. “I’ve never received a single complaint regarding fire from community residents, so I think it’s going well.”
Cosumnes Fire Chief Michael McLaughlin regularly attends meetings in Galt, Palazzo said, and the fire department sends monthly reports of the calls they respond to in Galt.
Having their fire services consolidated with a larger district has also provided Galt with access to resources that are not always available to smaller departments, Palazzo said.
“If it’s needed within the city, it’s available,” Palazzo said.
Although Woodbridge Fire District saw mostly positive results when it merged with Forest Lake Fire District in 1995 and Delta Fire District in 2003, Woodbridge Fire Chief Stephen Butler said the mergers created a few issues that had to be addressed as well.
“One issue with Forest Lake was they were an all-volunteer district, so once you merge like that you’ve got to hire new people,” Butler said. “We had to hire six personnel for station staffing, so it came at a cost.”
Woodbridge Fire also had to replace most of the Forest Lake’s outdated equipment after the merger, Butler said, resulting in additional costs.
Despite the initial monetary cost, Butler said merging with Forest Lake Fire allowed Woodbridge Fire to improve its response times in that area.
“The original Woodbridge Fire District stopped just north of Jahant Road,” Butler said. “Adding that station decreased our response time to the north end of the district significantly.”
One factor that Butler believes helped make the mergers easier was that all three were rural fire districts located in unincorporated county areas, he said, all of which receive the majority of their funding from property taxes.
Fire departments in cities such as Lodi have a different budget structure, Butler said, receiving their funding from the city’s general fund which collects revenue from sales taxes, usage fees and other sources in addition to property taxes.
As a result, Butler said it would most likely be much more difficult for rural fire districts to merge with city departments than with other rural districts.