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Fire, No Driver



A call came into the Willow Creek Volunteer Fire Department last Sunday: There was a fire just past Titlow Hill. Volunteers rushed to the station. And then waited. And waited. After about 10 minutes, someone licensed to drive one of their fire trucks showed up and they barreled off.

"We hit the road, but we were about 15 minutes out when we got canceled because other reinforcements had already shown up," says firefighter Cameron Smith.

That's been happening a lot lately — this sitting around, waiting for someone with a firefighter driver's license to show up to drive the engine. Tom Smithey, another Willow Creek VFD firefighter, recalls another incident. The call came in, an unattended burn pile on property west of Willow Creek that had spread into timber. Smithey, Smith and another guy without a firefighter driver's license were the first responders to the station.

"And all we could do is start up the engines and sit in 'em," Smithey says.

Eventually the crew made it to the fire.

"We got really lucky," Smithey says. "The wind was howling, and it would have been horrific if it had been July or August. I don't think we could have slowed it down. But it was still a little bit wet, a little bit green."

Well, why don't these guys have their firefighter driver's licenses? Damn good question, is what they'd say. It's not as if they haven't been trying. Two years in a row, Smith's tried to get his license — he got his permit and took the written, walk-around and skills tests. But when it came time to take the actual road test — driving the truck — the test was suddenly canceled because his examiner, Salyer VFD chief Dave Murphy, "was shut down," says Smith. Same thing happened to Smithey — he, Smith and another guy were scheduled to take the test May 11, but couldn't.

Murphy has been testing firefighter drivers from Orleans to Weaverville, in two counties, for 10 years under an employee testing program set up by the Department of Motor Vehicles. And he's highly regarded by locals, says Salyer VFD assistant chief Sue Ayers. Murphy was trained in Sacramento to test applicants back in their own districts — a boon to firefighters in far-flung Salyer and Willow Creek, 50 miles from the nearest DMV office. However, the applicants still had to go to the coast for the driving portion — Murphy would gather everyone and they'd go down to Arcata on a Saturday.

"Part of the requirement of this behind-the-wheel driving test is crossing a railroad track, entering and exiting the freeway, stop lights, stop signs — none of which we have in our fire district," Ayers says. "So [Murphy] set up two routes with the Arcata Fire Department to do these driving tests. And for the past eight years, the DMV has accepted that we take them out of our area to do the tests. But now they have taken us out of that program because our testing routes are not where our terminal is."

Now each applicant has to take a day off work (most have day jobs), grab a driver, take a fire engine out of service, and go to the DMV — not open on weekends — for the driver's test. In the meantime, some of the applicants' permits have expired and they have to start over.

"We've called and tried to make our case," says Ayers.

DMV spokesperson Jan Mendoza says there's nothing the DMV can do. "Federal rules for driver examiners have changed in the past couple of years that really restricted the rules," she says. "It's affected fire departments all over the state."

Murphy is discouraged. "I don't know what to do," he says.

Firefighters have written letters to Governor Schwarzenegger and to legislators. Nancy Starck, Eureka field representative for Assemblywoman Patty Berg, says Berg has "shared her concerns with the DMV and she's hoping to work out some accommodation for the firefighters."

They haven't heard back from the DMV yet.

Meanwhile, they're still waiting for drivers out in the mountains. On Tuesday, Smithey calls the Journaland says, "My pager just went off. Orleans fire crew, they're right now looking for a driver for a water tender."

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