Felton Fire Protection District
Source: Press Banner
Many in Felton still miss the noon-time testing of the WWII-vintage civil defense fire siren that was discontinued back in 2016 after it got stuck on “on” and truly alarmed the community, according to long-time Fire Chief Ron Rickabaugh.
Although the noon-time fire siren became something of a small town tradition, special pagers and smart phone apps have replaced the siren alerting volunteers to get to the firehouse, and the average response time of about eight minutes is impressive for a semi-rural, mountain community, volunteer fire district.
“When I first got into this business 37 years ago, I would have thought you’re nuts to rely on volunteers to show up to fight fires on a moment’s notice, but I’ve since learned otherwise,” Chief Rickabaugh said.
With only two and half paid positions, for Fire Chief Rickabaugh, Division Chief Bob Gray and half-time administrative assistant Laurie Dennis, the Fire District, as well as the entire Felton community, is totally dependent on the quick response, training and dedication of 33 fully trained volunteer firefighters and equipment operators to respond to calls to service.
Nearly all the firefighters, after graduating from a rigorous training program known as the Fire Academy, have regular day jobs ranging from mechanics, cooks, bus and ambulance drivers, explained Division Chief Bob Gray.
Nina Lavelle, 21, who grew up in Boulder Creek, a graduate of San Lorenzo Valley High School, recently graduated from the Fire Academy. After getting tested on handling the heavy hardware of fire hose hook-ups during a regular Tuesday night training session, she explained she had no idea how much firefighters actually do, as well as the real need for teamwork and coordination.
“It’s still amazing to me how much time everyone is willing to give to the community- but it feels really good to give back in terms of service,” Lavelle said.
“Many of our volunteers are seasonal firefighters for Cal Fire, and several are EMTs and ambulance drivers, so there is some skill overlap, but you’d be surprised at the diversity of backgrounds our volunteers have,” Division Chief Gray said.
The Felton Fire Protection District responds to about two to three calls everyday, about 60 percent of which are medical related and additional 15 percent responding to vehicle accidents, according to Gray. What helps the response time on many of these calls is several volunteer firefighters are in the habit of “hanging around” the Felton Firehouse, to study, work out or just socialize, and are immediately available to suit up and respond, Gray said.
The commitment to taking the unpaid, volunteer firefighter position seriously is “pretty well tested” by the volunteer’s commitment to the rigorous training required by the Fire Academy, graduation from which is required by the District. The Fire Academy requires a commitment of every weekend day for four months, plus two evening classroom sessions per week. “The Fire Academy generally weeds out those who might end up not taking the job seriously,” Gray said.
The Felton Fire Protection District receives less than two-tenths of one cent per dollar of property tax, for an annual allocation of about $700,000 per year, of which about $50,000 per year is set aside for equipment and fire engine replacement. The Fire District is expecting delivery of a new fire truck, specially designed for wild land fire fighting, in July or August.
Felton is the only fire district in the San Lorenzo Valley with a Fire Auxiliary, an affiliated nonprofit dedicated to organizing local support for the district. The 18th Mother’s Day Pancake Breakfast on May 13 was a great success, according to Judy Anderson, President of the Auxiliary.
Between the Mother’s Day Pancake Breakfast and the Santa’s Shelves Crafts Fair in November, the Auxiliary raises about $18,000 a year for that year’s “wish list” from district firefighters. In years past, this has included Jaws of Life, rescue harnesses, and large animal rescue equipment, as well as providing the funds for each new volunteer firefighter’s dress uniform.
Family traditions of public service run deep through the Felton Fire Protection District, which was established in 1947. Auxiliary President Anderson’s father and brother both served as volunteer firefighters and Fire Commissioners, as did Division Chief Gray’s grandfather. The Gray family suffered a tremendous loss when Division Chief Gray’s father, a Santa Cruz County Sheriff, was killed in the line of duty in 1983.
“I don’t think people realize how lucky they are to have such a dedicated group of people,” Division Chief Gray said.