The Fresno Fire Department is saying goodbye to a 2015 full of recovery, regret and rejoicing.
But 2016 figures to be nothing but hard judgments and even harder work.
“Where this department is right now – it’s a great place to be,” Chief Kerri Donis says. “The reason is we have the support of the City Manager and the Mayor and the City Council. They understand the need to rebuild this department.
“It’s amazing the steps forward we’ve made this year.”
Those steps include more firefighters, more investigators, a new truck company, an aggressive plan to replace aging equipment and the purchase of 320 new radios to help firefighters in the line of duty.
The chief listed all the highlights in a recent letter to the Fresno Fire Department “family” – she needed four pages to get everything in.
At the same time, the department finds itself in an unusually fragile spot.
There’s a long-running labor dispute between the rank-and-file firefighters’ union and the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin. Such labor spats are nothing new at City Hall. Yet, no one likes it when superior power imposes working conditions on public safety.
The Great Recession is over, but the local economy is hardly robust. You know what they say about economics in Fresno and the Valley – we’re last to enjoy a boom and first to feel a bust. There’s no true security in a city budget that’s supposed to pay for all this rebuilding.
But the big challenge for the Fire Department – not to mention City Hall and all of Fresno – is coming to terms with the fallout from a house fire on March 29.
It was while battling this blaze that Capt. Pete Dern fell through the roof. He was rescued by fellow firefighters, but suffered second and third degree burns on about 70% of his body.
“Hi, I’m Pete Dern,” he said in July at Community Regional Medical Center during his first public appearance since the fire.
Such winning personality combined with the resolve that typifies his journey toward recovery has earned Dern respect and awe throughout the nation.
But Dern on that fateful spring day was working as part of a professional and, in the end, unsentimental institution – the taxpayer-funded Fresno Fire Department.
In other words, the time has now come for answers to tough questions.
Why was Pete Dern on that roof? Does the horrific incident have something to teach City Hall and the department? What can city officials do to prevent another such incident?
Donis says City Hall in January expects to release the Serious Accident Response Team (SART) report on the Dern incident. The team consists of outside “peer” experts. The group has spent months digging into every detail of the incident and how the department operates, top to bottom.
Donis says she won’t discuss the report until it’s made public. But Fresno got a hint of what’s to come when the City Council on Dec. 17 agreed to fill nine new positions in the department. They’re all connected in one way or another to firefighter training and safety.
The unmistakable message: Fresno must find a way to discuss frankly the mistakes that led to the Pete Dern incident while retaining its concern for Pete Dern the man.
The SART report “doesn’t single out any one person,” Donis says. “What we found is we have work to do. We need to address our culture.”