Big Bear Fire Chief Jeff Willis was frank and up front with the crowd attending the first fire department town hall meeting Oct. 5 at Baldwin Lane Elementary in Sugarloaf. Increased call volume over the past few years has put a strain on the Big Bear Fire Department, he told the crowd of more than 60 people.
The crowd filled the multipurpose room at the elementary school to watch the presentation and listen to the proposed set of solutions. According to Willis, there was a 15.4 percent increase in emergency medical and fire incidents in Big Bear Valley between 2014 and 2016. And in 2017, the department responded to more than 4,500 emergency calls. Fifty-seven percent of those 911 calls were medical emergencies, Willis said.
Willis explained that the fire department does not have the personnel needed to maintain and sustain the level of calls expected in the coming years. There hasn't been an increase in staffing for years. The bottom line, he said, is the Big Bear Fire Department does not have the budget to meet the increasing demands.
Willis outlined four options regarding funding for the Big Bear Fire Department, telling the crowd that it is up to the people to decide which option is best for the community.
"The first option is to do nothing," Willis said. The do-nothing option means that cuts will have to be made, he said. Without an increase in funding Valley residents should expect an increasing number of emergency response failures and delays, he said.
To maintain services at the existing level would require the passage of a local revenue measure equalling an annual parcel tax of $90. Option two would not address the growing demand for services and could still result in level zero draw-downs, or failure to respond to a 911 call if all resources are assigned and out on calls, he said. There have been 82 level zero draw-downs so far this year, Willis said.
Option three is to strengthen services. This option would allow the fire department to hire more staff and secure new or improved emergency medical equipment and fire protection equipment. An annual parcel tax estimated at $150 is required to strengthen services to meet the Valley's growing need, Willis said.
Option four is an expansion of option three to include an additional fire engine or rescue squad in service each day. Willis said this option would minimize level zero draw-downs. The cost of this option would be a parcel tax of approximately $240 a year, Willis said.
It will be a challenge to receive community approval for any parcel tax, Willis said. A parcel tax requires a 66.7 percent approval by property owners who vote on the measure.
Audience members asked a variety of questions. Many wondered what it would mean if the San Bernardino County Fire Department took over the Big Bear department.
If the Big Bear Fire Department could not provide adequate services under the do nothing plan, Willis said one option would be to be absorbed by the county fire department. That takes control away from the Valley, Willis said, adding that the county fire department is planning a $156 annual parcel tax increase within its territory. "That's $6 more a year than our option three," Willis said.
Many voiced concern over the fate of the Sugarloaf Fire Station. Willis said that would be the first station to be adversely affected if no parcel tax was levied.
More than one person said that visitors and Big Bear Mountain Resort should share the financial burden because of increased tourism. Willis agreed, saying if the community selected and voted on option three then it would show Big Bear is willing to do its part. Willis said with option three he believes he can then make the argument that the financial burden should be shared by visitors and the resort as well.
Willis encouraged people in attendance to submit comments to the fire department and talk to neighbors about the issue and attend the town hall meetings.
The Big Bear Fire Department hosts two more town hall meetings to discuss finances and options with the public, and receive input. The next town hall meeting is Tuesday, Oct. 16, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Big Bear Area Regional Wastewater Agency board room, 122 Palomino Drive, Big Bear City. The third town hall meeting is Nov. 8 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Community Church Big Bear, 40946 Big Bear Blvd., Big Bear Lake.