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Mill Valley lacks the ability to deal with a catastrophic event

Mill Valley is a great place to live… just don’t let your house catch on fire or get a heart attack here, because your house might burn down and hope that our Mill Valley ambulance is available, rather than a chronically under-staffed fire truck without a paramedic and with only two people on-board to help you, until an ambulance arrives from another city. So, how could we possibly deal with a catastrophic event and massive evacuation such as a wildfire?

This is not the fault of our brave and sacrificing firefighters and paramedics. This is about agency under-staffing and is the sole responsibility of our City Council.

Worse still, the Mill Valley City Council has known about the City's under-staffing risks for years and done little about it.

I would be willing to wager that a family buying a home in Mill Valley would never guess that they are plopping down that $1.5 million of their hard-earned money to live in a community that is one of the more under-staffed with emergency services personnel – fireman and paramedics – in the country.

As it stands today, if your house catches on fire in Mill Valley or many other Marin cities, it might burn down simply because the fire truck that arrives has only two people on board: only a driver/engineer and a captain, but no firefighter.

With just two people on the fire truck they will have a difficult time saving lives and putting out the fire. They will probably have to let your house burn and only be able to try to stop the fire from spreading to the next house. And without enough personnel outside to put the fire out, they go in anyway (saving lives is their highest priority), but they will be at a much greater risk of losing their own life, going into your house to save yours.

The situation with paramedics is also problematic. If you have a heart attack or a stroke in Mill Valley, Homestead Valley or Tam Valley, Southern Marin is so short-staffed on paramedics and other critical, trained personnel that less than the 5 to 7 personnel required by NFPA standards might be able to show up at your house. And when our Mill Valley ambulance is called away to help in another city or transporting someone else to the hospital, the fire truck that shows up in its place may not have a paramedic on it, just an EMT engineer and captain: only two people.

The more you look the worse it gets

As Marin Post readers know, I’ve been researching the City’s lack of concern for the public’s safety with regard to the Miller Avenue Parkway Pilot Project, which narrowed our main evacuation route from two lanes each way to one lane. In the course of doing that, I’ve dug deeper into the City’s overall emergency preparedness. This has led me to find that things are worse than I could have imagined.

According to the website of the Marin Professional Firefighters (which corresponds to the OSHA Regulations that I reviewed)

In Marin, many fire engines have only two firefighters. Of the 35 fire engines on duty daily in Marin, not one meets the NFPA minimum of four firefighters, and only a handful even have three firefighters at any given time. Although Marin firefighters are highly trained and extremely capable, a fire engine with only two firefighters is measurably less effective than the three person standard that is considered the absolute minimum in most of the US. Too few firefighters places the public and firefighters at risk by increasing response times and reducing firefighter's ability to rescue, fight fires, and save lives. [Emphasis added]

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) state that for safety efficiency, all fire engines should be staffed with a minimum of four firefighters. In fact, a basic safety requirement is that no firefighters may enter a burning building unless four firefighters are "on-scene," the so-called "two-in, two-out" rule. Odds are, the closest fire engine to your home in Marin right now has only two firefighters, and at most three. In many emergencies, this is simply not enough to rescue your family or quickly extinguish a fire... [Emphasis added]

Every day when firefighters respond to emergencies in Marin, they and the public face an unnecessary risk due to inadequate staffing.

These standards are minimums for public safety and firefighter safety for a normal house fire, much less a catastrophic event like a canyon fire. So the next time you’re at a council meeting in your city, you might want to ask about the staffing of your fire department. I’m pretty sure you won’t like what you discover.

Meanwhile…

Having been made aware of this critical situation for years, the Mill Valley City Council has done pretty much nothing… other than paying some employees for overtime (according to City Council meeting minutes) to have them try to do two jobs at once or jobs that they may not fully trained to do (substituting an EMT for a paramedic on a fire truck).

In 2017, instead of taking immediate action, the City hired a consultant to do a “Deployment Analysis,” which basically restated what they already knew – what the national and industry standards already required. The final draft of this Analysis was presented to the City Council in 2018.

In the June 2018 City Council Hearing Staff Report, it stated

As suggested in the (Deployment) Analysis, we recommend adding three firefighters during this budget cycle to strengthen our emergency response capabilities. These additional staff resources will directly respond to community and Council priorities for enhanced fire prevention and response capability. Our recommended approach to this increased staffing is to bring two new members on this summer (we have a recruitment underway now and will have an eligibility list available from which to draw) with the third member added July 1, 2019. Through a combination of shift coverage and overtime, utilizing existing and new staff, we will achieve the desired three-person engine coverage in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

Note that the “desired three-person engine coverage” still fails the national standards minimum requirements.

After being presented with this partial remedy in June of 2018, the Mill Valley City Council, going into what turned out to be the worst fire season in California history, voted 3 to 2 against taking any action. Instead, they chose to drag their feet and spend more money on yet another consultant, this time commissioning a “Financial Plan” to tell them whether or not they can afford to hire a few more firefighters.

To date, that Financial Plan, which City Manager Jim McCann promised the public at June 2018 hearing would take only a few months, has yet to be made public – seven months later. And no hearings are on the calendar to discuss this topic.

It is beyond ridiculous that Mill Valley and other Marin cities, situated in one of the wealthiest counties on the planet, say they aren’t sure if they can afford what amounts to chump change to protect the public. For a city like Mill Valley, which is anticipating almost $50 million in revenues this year and $47.5 million in expenses ($2.5 million in the green), to drag its feet for years over a decision to hire critical life safety personnel that would cost it a few hundred thousand dollars per year, while the entire community is left in peril, is unconscienable.

They’re basically saying we can’t afford the level of professional staffing that you’d find in Evergreen, Colorado or Billings, Montana and most other cities in the country, while at the same time Mill Valley, in particular, thinks nothing of throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at consultants for any little thing, on the slightest whim.

It was against this backdrop and with full knowledge of our inadequacies even in the best case scenario that the Mill Valley City Council voted 3 to 2 in favor of narrowing Miller Avenue, which is our single most important emergency evacuation route in the event of a catastrophic event.

It is also somewhat amazing to me that throughout the entire Miller Avenue Pilot Project hearings in 2017, Fire Chief Welch, who had to have been fully aware of all of this, never once brought this to the City Council’s attention.

When asked if everything about the plan was okay, he just smiled and went along.

Now, I'm sure there's someone saying that I'm being too hard on the City Council, too critical. But if that's so, then please tell me why I don't ever see a council member willing to really fight for something. Who on the Council is standing their ground and saying, "No, I'm not going to let this go on. I'm going to keep bringing it up and talking about it at every single meeting until we fix this!"

It's always all about going along to get along.

But this is just too important to let slide. Like the Parkway Pilot Project, this could literally be a matter of life and death.