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With a mandate to cover firefighting services across 250 square miles in East Contra Costa County, Fire Chief Brian Helmick has struggled with a budget that keeps three of the fire district’s six stations empty. Last week he warned his community that lack of funding has consequences.

The East Contra Costa Fire District, serving Brentwood and Oakley Discovery Bay, Bethel Island, Knightsen, Byron, Marsh Creek, and Morgan Territory, announced Wednesday “that due to severe under-funding, it has been forced to take new, urgent measures to maintain its extremely limited operations and keep firefighters safe. Starting July 1, the fire district will only send firefighters inside a burning building if human life is at risk.”

Helmick said Friday that he was forced into the decision to protect the safety of his 30 firefighters. Trying to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and facing the onset of the wildfire season, he cited the “unsustainable” strain of his district’s reliance on mutual assistance from neighboring agencies.

The new policy says the district “must now focus on containing a fire to the structure involved. Unfortunately, this defensive first operation strategy raises the safety risk factors for families, businesses, and for property within our communities just as the 2020 fire season is getting underway.”

The district is also ending all public outreach events and station visits.

Voters in the district have rejected several parcel tax assessments and utility tax measures aimed at beefing up the department’s funding. Helmick said, “this didn’t happen overnight.” The chief makes frequent visits to area city councils and county offices to seek political support, as well as digging for any potential grant funding or outside aid. He notes that the roots of the fire district as a volunteer organization and the low funding level set after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 have been barriers to overcome.

Brentwood City Manager Tim Ogden said Friday, “My initial reaction was empathy” upon hearing the district’s announcement. “I hope the public gives them another chance. I’m not eager to see the wildfires coming ahead.”

Ogden acknowledged the difficulty of raising political support for tax measures. “If it’s a real important issue, you have to keep hammering at it until it’s successful,” he said.

Vincent Wells, the president of the district’s firefighter union, offered support to Helmick, saying that firefighter safety is of utmost importance. “Our people want to go home safe at the end of the day,” he said. Wells also noted that area fire districts have trouble supplying mutual assistance to East County due to the growing number of calls placed in the area.

Helmick also bemoaned the district’s ability to hold onto personnel due to its tight finances and impending retirements. He said he has worked hard since his arrival in 2017 to rebuild support for the department by improving public transparency and the agency’s efficiency.

Oakley City Manager Bryan Montgomery added his concerns Friday, saying the fire district “has been a long-standing problem and it simply cannot provide the same services that you see in properly-funded districts. The chief and fire board are making some very tough decisions and I am glad they are making it even more clear to us as residents how serious the situation is.”

County Supervisor Diane Burgis called the new policy “very disconcerting as a resident.” Burgis, who represents District 3 in Brentwood, reiterated her support for the fire district’s board of trustees and added that “it breaks my heart when you have to wait for help,” something she herself has experienced. “I trust they will find a solution,” she said.

Helmick says he aims to come before the fire district board soon with a plan for a new ballot funding option aimed at the November election. He hopes to offer a permanent solution for the district that will be sustain fire services for decades ahead.