An apparent miscommunication has Fire Chief Debra Pryor in hot water with Berkeley hills residents.
As part of its cost-saving plan to rotate fire company closures, the department Wednesday temporarily closed Fire Station 7, the main hills fire station at 2910 Shasta Road.
Just last week, Pryor had told the council that engine companies serving the Berkeley hills would be immune from closures until the close of fire season in December.
When neighbors realized Wednesday morning that the fire station was empty, they immediately lodged complaints and ultimately forced the city to reactivate the station’s lone engine company at 5 p.m. The station was closed for a total of nine hours during which time there were no major fires reported in the hills.
To save $1.2 million in fire department overtime, the city starting July 1 began rotating closures of up to two fire companies when the department was not at full staff. For stations with just one fire company like Station 7, the company closure effectively shuts down the station.
Under department directives, the closures are to be spread throughout the city, with special provisions made for the fire-prone hills when weather conditions presented severe fire risks.
But that’s not what Pryor told the council, according to Councilmember Betty Olds, who represents a section of the hills covered by Station 7.
“She didn’t say it would only be during critical fire times,” Olds said. “She said for the entire fire season. We won’t accept anything less.”
In response to the confusion, Deputy Chief David Orth said Station 7 will not be closed Friday as scheduled, and that the department will review its schedule for future closures.
Besides Station 7, Station 3 at 2010 Russell St. and Station 4 at 1900 Marin Ave. and The Alameda also serve hills residents.
To save money, Berkeley reduced minimum firefighter staffing from 34 to 26. Rather than pay overtime to maintain 34 on-duty firefighters, the city chose to close two three-firefighter companies before shelling out for overtime.
The reduction was not expected to result in frequent company closures, but the combination of summer vacation time, two recent workers compensation claims and retirements have left the department shorthanded, Orth said.
During the first six days of July, the city has closed two companies for three days and a single company for two days. The only day the city had full fire service was July 4 as a precaution for Independence Day fireworks.
Orth expected closures to decrease dramatically by the beginning of next year when vacation time is minimal and the department expects to hire 12 new firefighters.
Although Berkeley has seen a big increase in major fires over the past month, Orth said call for service volume for 2005 was slightly below average.