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New chief has plan that could reduce Turlock fire station closures

A Turlock fire engine is pictured in 2017.
A Turlock fire engine is pictured in 2017. naustin@modbee.com

Turlock has a new plan it hopes will limit how often it closes one of its four fire stations during the city’s new budget year that started Monday.

Interim Fire Chief Gary Carlson said in a Wednesday phone interview that the Fire Department could close one of its stations 10 percent to 15 percent of the time.

Fire Chief Robert Talloni — who was fired effective Monday — had proposed closing a station one third to one half of the time as part of the city’s efforts to balance its $40 million general fund budget, which primarily pays for public safety.

The Fire Department lost two firefighter positions, and its overtime budget has been reduced from $500,000 to $100,000, part of the cuts made to all departments that spend general fund dollars. Turlock did not lay off anyone but eliminated positions that were vacant or would become vacant at the start of the new budget.

The Fire Department now has 46 budgeted line firefighters and needs 39 to fully staff its four stations. That works out to 13 firefighters per shift — three firefighters per station plus a battalion chief.

Carlson, who had been the department’s operations division chief, said when he has 12 firefighters he will keep all stations open but staff one with two firefighters who will use a sport utility vehicle to respond to basic medical calls and back up the other stations on their calls.

Medical calls make up about 65 percent of the roughly 7,000 calls the Fire Department responds to annually.

“This is not as effective (as being fully staffed),” Carlson said. “But it is better than shutting down a fourth of the town. And we are getting someone there (to an emergency call) until the cavalry arrives.”

Talloni had proposed closing a station when staffing fell below 13 and assign the remaining firefighters to the other stations. City Manager Bob Lawton closely questioned Talloni about that last month as the city was putting its new budget together.

Lawton asked Talloni whether it would make sense to keep a station open with just two firefighters to preserve response times and with the understanding there were limits on what two firefighters could do until a fully staffed engine arrived.

Lawton has cited “incompatible management styles,” as the reason for terminating Talloni. He has declined to provide specifics.

But the Turlock firefighters union in a Facebook post said Talloni was fired for standing up to to “bean counters in city hall” and for trying to keep Turlock and its firefighters safe. Carslon said there are merits to Talloni’s plan but decided to take a different approach.

Carlson said the Fire Department will have to close, or what is called brown out, a station once staffing falls below 12 firefighters. The remaining firefighters from the shuttered station would be assigned to the other stations.

He said the plan should result in one station being closed 10 percent to 15 percent of the time. But he emphasized the plan is a work in progress and will be closely monitored.

He said the plan could change if the Fire Department faces unexpected absences, such as a firefighter getting injured and being off work for an extended period.

“We are going to run with it for a month and see how it goes,” Carlson said. “The goal — this is not a long-term solution — (is) to work with the existing budget.”

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