No houses lost to wildfire
By Mary-Justine Lanyon
Last year was the first year in 25 years within the County Fire district that no house was lost to wildfire.
“I am so excited about that,” Chief Dan Munsey told members of the Mountain Sunrise Rotary Club.
He noted that every firefighter wants to go to a fire. “We don’t like the destruction of it but, if you train for something and are good at it, you want to practice your skills.
“But that’s not our job,” the chief said. “I don’t want to fight fires in my jurisdiction. I will do everything I can to prevent fires.”
He praised the work being done by the Mountain Rim Fire Safe Council, under the direction of Laura Dyberg, to reduce the risk of fires. Creating fuel breaks, identifying dead trees and getting them removed, making sure property owners know how to keep their property safe – that community risk reduction all adds up to a safer community.
Community risk reduction goes beyond a fire, Chief Munsey said. The fire scar, he noted, is susceptible to flooding. “We look at the potential threats to the community from ice storms, floods, earthquakes and fire.”
County Fire’s goal, the chief said, is to “proactively reduce risk to the community before an incident occurs.”
He chuckled as he talked about County Fire’s use of goats to help reduce risk.
“Where do fires occur every year in San Bernardino?” he asked. The answer was on Little Mountain. “We know that area will burn. What is predictable is preventable.” And so, they put goats on Little Mountain.
“It’s expensive to do,” he said, “and hard to get goats. But it’s a good investment.
“I want to continue this trend of not burning houses down in our jurisdiction.”
People are calling 911 for reasons other than an emergency these days, Chief Munsey said. They’ll call and say, it’s not really an emergency – please don’t use lights, don’t send a fire engine.
“We are there for you but, at the same time, we have finite resources,” the chief said. “So, how are we addressing this problem?”
Ten years ago, San Bernardino County Fire started thinking about it and has come up with an emergency medical dispatching system. Now, when a call comes in, the person will be asked a series of questions. “We will determine if they are breathing, if their airway is open, if they have good circulation. The longer they are on the call, the less likely it’s an emergency,” Chief Munsey said.
If it turns out to be a low-acuity problem or not an emergency at all, the call will be shifted to a nurse in the dispatch center. Chief Munsey said they have “soft started” this program, which is currently staffed part-time during peak hours. The intention is for a nurse to be available 24/7 soon.
He told the Rotarians that San Bernardino County is the first county in the U.S. to be doing this. “Our goal is to get that caller to appropriate care in an appropriate time and with the appropriate method,” Chief Munsey said.
It can be very expensive to be transported by ambulance, he noted. “When an ambulance arrives, by law it can only take you to the ER. By sending calls to a nurse and working with Public Health, different insurance companies, Urgent Cares and doctors, we can connect a patient to the care they need without sending an expensive response.”
While many people don’t believe that COVID-19 is a problem, the chief said he is not one of them. “I’ve seen the effects of it. We are talking about how to work together to prevent the hospital system from collapsing. Patients are staying in the back of an ambulance for hours until a hospital can find room for them.
“We have hospitals in the county that are running out of oxygen. This is real – what I see every day.”
Chief Munsey said having ambulances in the fire stations is a great system. “These folks train together. Every fire engine has a paramedic on it. They save lives.
“The greatest accomplishment in my career was when someone would say, do you remember me? You were the paramedic who restarted my heart. That makes you feel incredible. Your paramedics are incredible. They train every day so they’re there for you in an emergency.”
And, he added, “your firefighters are among the best. You wouldn’t believe the stories about their going out of the way to help the public.”
Chief Munsey told the story of a mountain visitor who had an emergency and was taken to Mountains Community Hospital. The man told the firefighters and paramedics that his daughter had run out of gas driving up the hill. They called their mechanic, who took gas to the daughter so she could get to the hospital.
“It’s not like that across the U.S.,” Chief Munsey said. “Fire departments have gotten bigger and bigger. Some forget why they’re here. It’s not to respond to emergencies but to prevent them.”
There are three Cs that are of utmost importance to him, the chief said: community involvement, collaboration and communication.
“We are a community-based fire department,” he said. “And we are great collaborators with our partners. Think about what Laura Dyberg is doing, what Rotary is doing. If we make the community better, we will make it safer. We work with Caltrans and all the fire chiefs. Jurisdictional boundaries no longer matter. The closest agency will respond.”
And, Chief Munsey said, “communication is important to me. I promise you, you will know who I am.”