Trevor Towner is a 20-year veteran of the Ventura Fire Department and concerns about firefighter mental health led him to make a dramatic gesture at the Dec. 18 Ventura City Council meeting where plans for a new seventh fire station were under debate.
Unit responses have more than doubled since he started working at the department, Towner told city leaders, which has contributed to chronic sleep deprivation and seven PTSD workers compensation claims among Ventura firefighters in recent years.
“Now we know why we have heart attacks and get cancer. Now we know why we can’t stop drinking and why our relationships are suffering. Now we know why we can’t process trauma and why some of us are having thoughts of suicide,” he said.
“This is not a resignation,” Towner said while holding his badge aloft. “But how can I wear this badge under an administration that touts mental health awareness at every opportunity, yet fails to recognize the catastrophe unfolding in front of them? We cannot expect sleep-deprived first responders to be advocates for themselves, so this is a cry for help. This is for every first responder who is struggling. You are not alone.”
Additional fire station and more firefighter-paramedics to the rescue
Towner shared his views on a night when the city council voted 4-3 to move ahead with a new “interim” fire station and grappled with questions about staffing levels and firefighter mental health.
A city staff report stated that a seventh fire station was included in a 2000 fire department strategic plan with the goal of reducing the impact of high call volumes on life safety through improved response times. A fire facilities and equipment master plan adopted by the council in 2006 recommended major infrastructure changes to all six of the current fire stations, built between the 1950s and 1988. Since funding isn’t available to replace the current stations or build a permanent new one, the temporary station is the best short-term option to improve response times and relieve firefighter fatigue, officials said.
Fire Station No. 7 is planned for a city-owned three-acre property at 2269 Alessandro Drive near Seaward Avenue and the 101 Freeway. The site includes obsolete water-softening structures used for firefighter training since 1991, which will be demolished. The station will consist of modular living quarters and a prefabricated steel apparatus bay and is expected to cost about $5 million, whereas a permanent station would cost around $30 million. It should have a “useful life” of 20 to 30 years, officials said.
More than $3 million will be covered with a fire facilities and mitigation fee from Portside Ventura Harbor apartment development, which should benefit from increased response times from Fire Station No. 7 along with the Pierpont and Ventura Keys neighborhoods. Completion is estimated for summer or fall of 2024. Officials said the new station will house some of the 13 firefighter-paramedics funded through a $7.6 million, three-year U.S. Department of Homeland Security Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that the city was awarded in February.
Ventura City Manager Bill Ayub said the new station has been years in the making.
“This interim fire station project, along with the addition of the SAFER grant-funded firefighter-paramedics, is intended to enhance service delivery through reducing response times and providing more emergency personnel at peak hours. In short, it’s going to help us save lives. It is expected to have the added benefit of reducing the workload on existing staff, which will help reduce fatigue, improve the overall well-being and readiness of our fire first responders,” Ayub said during the meeting.
Fire department focus on mental health
Ventura Fire Chief David Endaya said during the meeting that firefighter mental health issues are no longer swept under the carpet like in the past. The department now has a behavioral and mental health program for firefighters and their families that’s exactly the same as that offered to Ventura police.
“Over the last 5 to 7 years, peer support and mental and behavioral health has been a huge issue. It used to have a really horrible stigma on it where people said, ‘You signed up for this job, you know what it entails,’” Endaya said. “That was wrong. That was a little bit of the tone when I was hired on the department, that you were kind of told you needed to kind of suck it up and be ready to deal with the things you’re going to see, sleep deprivation, taking it home and trying to have a relationship with your spouse, your children. We have learned a lot over the last several years really trying to shed that stigma. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to need help.”