I would like to report to you from the frontlines. I am a firefighter/paramedic for the Berkeley Fire Department. As a Berkeley resident since 1991, I’ve watched firsthand how much the city has developed and changed. My two teenage children attend Berkeley High School – remotely, of course – and have grown up in the Berkeley public school system. As someone who works for, depends on and cares deeply for this community, my message to you is this: Berkeley’s emergency response system is at a critical tipping point and we need your help.
From population growth, to a changing built environment, to climate change, to a global pandemic, and on the precipice of closing the doors of our local hospital, we are struggling to keep up. The women and men of the Berkeley Fire Department respond to the people of Berkeley day in and day out, no matter what the circumstances. While the entire world has been on lockdown, we have not missed a day’s work since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. In the last month, as communities flee raging wildfires throughout California, we have sent almost a third of our workforce directly into the flames to help wherever needed. We are overstretched. But no matter what the threat, we have stood firm and answered when called. Now, it is your firefighters who need you. Voting yes on Measure FF will give us a vital lifeline in these unprecedented times and provide you, the people of Berkeley, with long overdue resources and infrastructure to meet the myriad emergencies that threaten our city.
As I write this article from my home near San Pablo Park, I smell the smoke of the Sonoma County fires. Through my window, I see the ash on my car and the hazy, darkened sky, completely obscuring the hills. The threat of a wildfire is literally staring us in the face – a threat that has become reality many times already in Berkeley, most recently in 1991. The underlying contributing factors that make our hills prone to fast moving fires remain. They include steep mountainous topography, challenges to access and evacuation routes, and major water supply issues. The largely wood-constructed residences packed in dense vegetation are home to many, including vulnerable populations. Besides short-term funding in the 1990s after the last hills fire, there has been little funding to address these realities.
Measure FF allows us to address the threat of the next wildfire directly. It includes funding for the Safe Passageways evacuation route construction, community evacuation training and exercises, wildfire fuel abatement planning, vegetation management crews, a state-of-the-art outdoor emergency warning system, and fire inspectors dedicated to high hazard areas. While in 2008, Measure GG was built around developing self-reliant citizen groups and modernizing the aging radio communications infrastructure, Measure FF is designed to take real steps to prevent or slow the spread of a devastating wildfire and help officials provide quick emergency notifications to the community – a critical lesson learned from the fires that ripped through Santa Rosa and Paradise. But, of course, wildfires are not our only challenge.
The Berkeley Fire Department is operating with a stagnant, outdated response system. Besides the addition of one ambulance in 2016, Berkeley’s service model has not changed since 1987. To put this in perspective, call volume across the city has increased by more than 150% since then, from 6,300 calls for service to over 16,000 per year. These challenges to our emergency response system are compounded by the imminent closure of Alta Bates Hospital, where we transport over 62% of our patients. The built landscape of Berkeley is changing rapidly from traditional and horizontal to modern and vertical to meet the housing needs of a denser population. What this means to you is an increase in response times and inadequately resourced responders – all of this in a world where seconds can determine outcomes, success or failure, life or death.
Measure FF would fund more emergency apparatus and personnel to respond for everyday calls, and allow Advanced Life Support paramedics to remain available for critical calls. It also aims to staff apparatus with the necessary number of firefighters and medics to get the job done. In other words, this will allow Berkeley Fire Department to send the right resources to the right calls, fast.
But wait, there’s more. In its present form, someone calling 911 may speak to three different dispatchers (CHP, Berkeley, Alameda County) before receiving lifesaving instructions that guide CPR, rescue breathing, and bleeding control. These transfers often result in delays and confusion. Measure FF will streamline fire and EMS dispatch by updating dispatch technology and protocols, provide training so dispatchers can provide pre-arrival instructions, triage calls to the correct units, and keep the caller with Berkeley dispatchers until responders are on scene. This will align Berkeley with modern dispatch centers around the country. This is critical as a modern dispatch center is the core of operating an efficient emergency response system.
Measure FF will also create opportunities for more effective community paramedicine. During the initial stages of COVID-19, the department designed and deployed a groundbreaking Mobile Integrated Paramedic (MIP) program – a unit that performed house calls, follow-up care, and was designed to spend more time on complex, but often low-acuity medical and social issues where our failing healthcare system falls drastically short. What the Berkeley Fire Department provided – up until the loss of funding – was not just unique to the Bay Area, but to California, and possibly even the United States. Measure FF will provide funding for innovative programs like the MIP unit to keep Berkeley on the cutting edge of community care.
We are committed to transparency and citizen engagement in any spending of city funds. We are proud to have the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, a citizen group appointed by the council overseeing the use of funds in Measure FF – the measure was in fact born from priorities established by this commission. Measure FF has sweeping support from our community leaders, which you can view at www.BerkeleyPrepared.com.
Berkeley Fire Department is at a crossroads and we need your help. The bottom line is this: we need to make significant and immediate changes in the way we serve the citizens in order to keep up with the evolving demands of the city and to prepare for unpredictable wildfires that continue to ravage the state. We cannot do this without your support. I strongly urge you to vote yes on Measure FF in November. We have always and will continue to stand by you, the citizens of Berkeley. I am asking you to please stand with us.