Chalfant Valley volunteer firefighters (Photo: Geisel)
Imagine 26,000 pounds of fire engine, sirens screaming, lights blazing, barreling down the road, coming at you full speed, fully loaded with crew, gear and tanks topped off with water. Who’s driving that truck, and how were they licensed? That question was raised recently by Sacramento lawmakers, setting off an unintended conflagration linking two state-sparked brush fires: one a budgetary Department of Motor Vehicles consolidation and the other a piece of legislation designed to ease regulatory burdens on the fire service by streamlining drivers license processes for firefighters.
The two events were probably never intended to have any kind of interaction, but Mono County’s Regional Council of Rural Counties delegate, Supervisor Hap Hazard, saw the potential collision coming while working with Kevin Jeffries (R-Lake Elsinore) office as an expert witness on AB 1648. Here’s how it all breaks down:
Hazard, it turned out, had been fortunate enough to be included in testimony before the State Senate’s Transportation Committee to support AB 1648, the DMV Firefighter Licensing bill, jointly authored by Jeffries and Wes Chesbro (D-Eureka). (The bill passed the Assembly and has to get through the Transportation Committee before going to the full Senate floor.)
The bill would, if passed, amend the type of license required to operate firefighting equipment weighing 26,000 pounds or more (aka your average fully-loaded fire engine) from a Class A or B commercial to a less stringent Class C. Currently, an engineer, captain or chief needs a Class A or B license. They also need to shell out about $500 in out-of-pocket fees, including $100-150 for a doctor-approved physical, a written test at the DMV and a road test, which are not reimbursable.
The road test involves a “pre-trip” vehicle walk-around and the driving test, which locally has meant that a fire truck and two crew members (at least one already licensed) have to make the trek to Bishop.
That’s where the DMV consolidation part directly impacts AB 1648. As part of the state’s budget tightening, proposed DMV consolidation means that the number of large and heavy vehicle commercial license examination stations will be reduced — dramatically — from 30 to 8. On the chopping block: Bishop, which in turn would leave the nearest exam station to our part of the world in Bakersfield.
As Hazard reasoned, it was bad enough that south county departments (such as Swall Meadows and Chalfant) had to spend 4-5 hours, and north county departments in Walker, Coleville and Bridgeport had to dedicate between 7-10 hours, traveling to and then testing in Bishop. A trip to Bakersfield would add an extra day, 900 miles and travel expenses for two, as many as three to four times a year.
And this would have to come out of rural fire district budgets that only average perhaps $50,000 annually. Not to mention, the wear and tear on the engines. As Hazard points out, much of the gear used in rural districts is second-hand, purchased from metro departments that have upgraded. Such gear usually has anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 operating hours on it, and trips. Districts buy the used equipment hoping to get up to 15 years of use, but multiple trips to Bakersfield could cut that longevity in half.
New federal and state carbon footprint standards have thrown small districts a big curveball as well, essentially forcing them to buy newer, lower emission trucks that can easily cost $200,000-250,000.
During deliberations before the Senate Transportation Committee, one major concern raised by the committee’s chair, Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), focused on the accountability and credibility of those being signed off as engine drivers. During testimony, two rural fire chiefs told the committee that, in addition to the process being totally aboveboard and anything but an old boys club, they have insurance companies looking over their shoulders for additional accountability. That was fine, the Chair indicated, but what about other districts just up the road? AB 1648 was now in serious trouble and faced a Senate stopping “no” vote by the seven members.
During his time at the microphone, Hazard pointed out that larger municipalities typically have full-time, paid fire department staff, whereas the crews serving in Inyo and Mono counties are predominantly volunteer. As to their credentials, Hazard told the committee most of those firefighters are well seasoned “pros” at heavy equipment. They are, he said, not simply secretaries or shop owners, and many boast up to 40 years experience driving snowplows and farm equipment.
Hazard credits the many players who provided input, including RCRC, Inyo and Mono county lawmakers and the fire chiefs’ testimony, for what he thinks helped stop 1648’s free fall into the legislative abyss. The vote didn’t look as grim as before and after a few days of additional changes between Chair Lowenthal’s office and Jeffries’ staff, the bill cleared the Transportation Committee and now heads to the Senate floor. Passage is predicted.
In addtion to the Class C license opportunity that will still able to be achieved via the Bishop DMV office, the bill adds a provision for a medical waiver, allowing candidates to “self-declare” they are free from a checklist of conditions, and sign to that effect under penalty of perjury. The bill also sets up a system whereby the State Fire Marshal’s office has oversight of local instructors, who conduct the prospective candidates’ 16-20 hours of equipment training.