Because many are stationed on the edge of rural communities with the state’s incredible wild country in their backyards and isolated highways running through the middle of it all, firefighters must wear several hats. They respond to residential and business fires. They are also wildland certified. And they provide emergency service response for everything from ski and hiking accidents to automobile crashes.
In short, they play an essential role in keeping residents and real estate safe. But their role could be changing if Gov. Brian Sandoval has his way.
Sandoval has slated for elimination several important state NDF fire districts in Clark, Elko and Eureka counties. The new budget proposal also calls for the closure of the Wells Conservation Camp and the elimination of 10 state positions. The Wells camp not only provides fire protection coverage for a broad section of rural Nevada, but its firefighters respond rapidly in a backup capacity for fire districts through the state.
Should the governor’s budget end up being approved, the changes will start as early as 2012. The state would relinquish jurisdiction in key districts and transfer responsibility to the counties. The three counties named have very different fire service needs.
Eureka County, for instance, is one of Nevada’s least populated areas. It benefits from a mining tax windfall and sports an enormous volunteer fire station. The county, it would seem, is quite capable of supporting such a change.
Not so in Clark County, where NDF Station No. 1 stands in upper Kyle Canyon and helps protect Mount Charleston residents surrounded by forest. (Disclosure: I have been a volunteer firefighter at Mount Charleston and for years have watched the NDF professionals save lives and property.)
Eliminating Station No. 1 would save the state a half-dozen firefighter positions, but it would create a burden on local government. A Clark County Fire Department (CCFD) station would need to be built to replace NDF No. 1 and Volunteer Station No. 81. Estimated construction cost to residents of Clark County: more than $30 million.
That excludes the cost to provide personnel for the station. The CCFD’s staffing system for even a small station calls for around-the-clock presence of a paramedic, a captain and two firefighters.
When Clark County was booming and tax revenues were fat, such an expense might not have seemed like a deal breaker. But those days are long gone.
Those Clark County paramedic/firefighters are highly trained and highly compensated, but, by contract, they don’t fight forest fires. They are experts when it comes to running emergency rescues and battling residential and commercial structure fires. They don’t fight wildland fire.
While the governor is busy brushing up on his best sales technique in preparation for a budget fight at the Legislature, residents in the affected counties are gathering to raise their voices. Their concerns are genuine. They know how much they rely on those NDF firefighters.
They also are learning that the proposed changes will have an impact on them even if a fire never breaks out. Losing the talents of the state firefighters means changes in rural areas’ insurance safety ratings. The higher the ISO number, the higher the cost of a homeowner’s insurance coverage.
Starting to get the picture?
In the name of keeping his campaign promise not to balance the budget without raising taxes, Sandoval is half-cleverly shoving the fiscal burden from the state to the county level. That’s sure to make him look good in the eyes of some, but it doesn’t save taxpayers a nickel.
The governor has a challenging task, but will wielding the fiscal ax leave citizens and scenery less secure?
Putting rural residents and Nevada’s precious wildland at risk in the name of politics is no way to balance a budget.
John L. Smith writes a weekly column on rural Nevada. He also writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.