The Hughson Fire Protection District is "underfinanced, understaffed, undertrained and ... not able to provide an adequate level of service to the city of Hughson at this time," according to a report released this week.
The City Council commissioned the report last year after deteriorating relations with the fire district, sparked, in part, by the district's opposition to additional housing developments.
The highly critical analysis, released Wednesday and challenged by a fire official, scorched Hughson's volunteer department for its performance and planning. The district, which has two full-time employees and 23 volunteer firefighters, serves the city's 6,000 residents and about 5,000 who live near the city boundary.
It comes 18 months after a report looking at the county's 20 fire departments called Hughson's "barely serviceable." It stated that some of the county's departments should disband and others need to push for a countywide development fee for fire protection.
Among the specifics cited in Hughson's report:
Average response time was more than nine minutes for two straight years, well below national standards
The district spends less than half the per capita average on service than other county departments.
The department's firefighting methods and lack of records made it ineligible for federal grants.
There was very little training in hazardous spills or trench rescues.
"They have not planned for the future and are not meeting current laws, regulations and standards governing the delivery of emergency services or the management of employees and volunteers," the report concluded. "The district has stated in resolutions and letters to LAFCO that they cannot protect future development. In reality, they are not able to provide an adequate level of service to the city of Hughson at this time."
LAFCO is the Local Agency Formation Commission of Stanislaus County.
Fire consultant Anthony Fink, who prepared the report, used department and county records and national standards to support his conclusions.
Fire department defended
Fire district board member Doug Humphreys said it was outrageous to say the district was not providing adequate service and added that the city ignored some facts and manipulated others.
"People here call 911, and the fire department always shows up and mitigates whatever the problem is," he said.
He said it has been serving Hughson residents faithfully and well since 1915.
What the city or the district can do about finances or staffing remains to be seen, especially in a time of diminishing tax revenues. The City Council and the district board will review the findings Monday at 7 p.m. in the Senior Center next to the City Council chambers.
Mary Hemminger, management analyst for Hughson, said the report was "a beginning point" for addressing fire protection issues.
"We look forward to working very closely with the fire district to find solutions to deficiencies noted in the report," Hemminger said, "and to establish and appropriately define the level of service for the city of Hughson."
She said City Manager Joe Donabed had sent that same message to members of the fire board.
The problems the report pointed out are not unlike those experienced by other county departments, which was pointed out in the 2006 report commissioned by LAFCO.
Guideline of 6 minutes or less
Among the areas of greatest concern in Hughson's report were the department's failure to keep adequate records, its response times and inadequate training.
Response times were criticized, as was the lack of specifics in records concerning that issue from Stanislaus County's 911 dispatch center and the fire district. The report cited response time guidelines that indicated six minutes or less should be the rule 90 percent of the time from the initial emergency call.
But the report said the Hughson average for the first unit on the scene was just more than nine minutes in 2006 and 2007.
Humphreys said that reflected rural times, not those in the city.
The report cited lack of records that made it hard to determine whether the district's time reflected a full unit ready to combat a blaze or just a single person.
It also pointed out that the department fell short in training standards set by the Stanislaus County Fire Authority related to hazardous materials and trench and confined space rescues. In addition, it lacked qualified personnel to operate its rescue boat.
Humphreys, also a San Jose firefighter and paramedic, took exception to two conclusions.
"It said we rely heavily on mutual aid," Humphreys said. "Their own numbers say structure fires are just 3 percent of what we do. And when it comes to structure fires, we have a mutual aid agreement. When there is a fire or major accident, help comes automatically, whether it's Ceres, Hughson or, sometimes, even Modesto."
"We know we're underfunded, understaffed," Humphreys said.
He also questioned the report's finding on response times.
"In the city limits, we average 4.12 minutes from rollout to the scene," Humphreys said, and explained that when the 911 call is answered at the dispatch center and processed at the fire station, the total response time would be just over six minutes. He said it is nine minutes-plus to rural areas, but those response times reflect greater distances.
Ineligible for federal money
The report stated the district was not eligible for some federal funding because of inadequate record keeping and noncompliance with federal standards for "incident command," i.e., how the department systematically fought fires.
Its per capita spending is about $28 per resident, less than half the countywide average of $60, the report said. The district provides no fire prevention or building inspection services, a matter noted by the report.
In August, the city responded to the district's opposition to new housing by issuing a request for fire district records and hired Fink to evaluate the district's ability to provide fire protection.
In a preliminary report Sept. 24, Fink advised the council to lay the groundwork for an assessment district. That may be one of the few options remaining to improve service.
Last year, Hughson fire district property owners overwhelmingly rejected the fire district's proposal to raise the an-nual residential fire tax from $36 to $140, or about $9 a month. The tax is a key revenue source for the fire service, and its officials wanted to use the extra money to hire additional staff.
Monday's 7 p.m. meeting will be held at the Hughson Community Senior Center, 2307 Fourth St.
Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2311.