Posted by: News_Desk on 03/03/2017 01:37 PM
Updated by: News_Desk on 03/03/2017 01:37 PM
Expires: 01/01/2022 12:00 AM
Assistant Chief’s Retirement Ends An Era At Fire District
San Andreas, CA...When Assistant Fire Chief Robert Chabot turns in his pager on April 1, it won’t just be one man’s retirement. His departure after 20 years of service with the San Andreas Fire Protection District is also the end of an era.
“Robert has been my right hand man since I’ve been chief here,” said San Andreas Fire Chief Don Young. “We are losing a guy who has been available 365 days a year, 24/7, whenever I called on him.”
Chabot, 65, is retiring from his volunteer role as a fire commander for undisclosed personal reasons. He will continue for now with his paid role as an administrative assistant to Young. The two are the district’s only paid employees.
Chabot served 21 years in the U.S. Army, primarily with the military police. He can still easily bark out orders like a drill sergeant when necessary. “Show some respect,” he once snapped at several young department members who failed to appropriately salute the U.S. flag during a meeting.
It’s no accident that Young sometimes taps Chabot to deliver stern messages to the agency’s personnel. And it is not surprising, either, that Chabot proudly displays on his desk two mugs featuring the animated dwarf character Grumpy. It is Chabot’s nickname and, although he doesn’t have a beard, his face does resemble the dwarf’s.
“Personally, I am not a people person,” Chabot said. “But professionally, I can deal with almost anybody in a polite and professional manner.”
Chabot honed those skills long before coming to San Andreas. After graduating from the former Norte Del Rio High School in Sacramento in 1969, he attended American River Junior College. “Then I went into the military for 21 years.”
Chabot spent most of those decades with the military police. He served two tours in Germany, two tours in Korea, five stateside assignments “and deployments elsewhere I can’t tell,” he said.
Chabot left the Army in 1992. In 1996, he came to Calaveras County to work for the county government fire service that existed at the time to operate the breathing support unit. He joined San Andreas Fire Protection District in March of 1997.
“The first fire I went on was a fatality fire in Engine 164 in the house next to Treat’s (General Store),” Chabot said, referring to the grocery store in the center of town.
Chabot worked his way through the ranks and was named assistant chief in 2009. Along the way, he saw his share of horror. “I had to pull a baby out of a dashboard,” he said. He said he also once performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on two cats pulled from a burning house.
Despite all that, despite the Grumpy mugs on his desk and despite his role as the designated drill sergeant for the district, Chabot often sports a goofy smile.
“My philosophy of life is conception is a terminal disease. We don’t get out of life alive anyway, so we might as well have some fun,” he said.
Chabot said that once he’s no longer in the hot seat to get up in the middle of the night for fire calls, he plans to put a greater focus on fun. “Take walks. Read. Play games. Learn.”
Chabot leaves a fire district that is very different than the one he joined. Two decades ago, San Andreas Fire Protection District personnel responded to about 250 calls a year. Then, most of the volunteers lived in town and employers were generally forgiving if a volunteer had to leave work to respond to an emergency.
Now, the agency responds to more than 1,000 calls a year. And it is increasingly difficult to find people able and willing to undergo the lengthy training to become firefighters and then be ready on a moment’s notice to drop what they are doing to respond to emergencies.
The district does pay a $50 stipend to some firefighters to work 24-hour shifts at the station. But that is a pittance, Chabot said.
“It works out to $2.08 an hour.”
Another sign of the district’s tight finances is that no one gets any kind of pension or retirement payment after working there. Even Chabot, after his long service, won’t get a cent. Instead, he said he will subsist on his social security and his Army pension. That Army pension, Chabot notes, is based on what his salary was in 199s when he left the military.
The district’s entire annual budget is about $200,000 a year. That comes from taxes paid by district property owners. Most years, the agency can earn additional revenue when it provides engines and crews to assist the state and federal governments in fighting wildfires. In 2016, San Andreas Fire had crews out working wildfire strike teams for most of the summer.
Still, there simply isn’t enough money even to purchase all the equipment needed to protect the district. One of Chabot’s key achievements was addressing this problem.
Young said that Chabot wrote three successful applications for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That funding, about $2 million in all, purchased complete protective gear (turnouts, etc.) for agency staff, a machine to clean the gear, and self contained breathing apparatus gear and testing equipment. The funding will also purchase a brand new, not-yet-delivered fire engine.
But that equipment won’t last forever. And Chabot, watching the increasing challenge to find enough volunteers, says a day of reckoning is coming.
“The people of our district need to accept the fact that they are going to have to pay some money to get firefighters,” Chabot said. “Pay $50 per year per person. Give up one Day-O espresso per month.”
The biggest immediate impact of Chabot’s retirement, Young said, is that effective April 1, only Young and Battalion Chief Lee Rhodes will be available to be in the hot seat as commanders during major incidents.
When a fire breaks out in the middle of the night now, for example, one member of the trio is on call at any given time to get up and go. The person next in line also has to be ready in case a second major incident happens. With three commanders, Young said, it usually has been possible for each of them to get enough sleep.
Young said that the district’s lieutenants and captains often take the incident command role for relatively routine calls. Examples would be medical calls not involving an imminent risk of death. Still, he said the policy is to always have a chief monitoring the situation by radio in case a report of a dizzy spell turns out to be cardiac arrest.
Young said having a seasoned commander available is crucial to firefighter safety. The district’s 30 firefighter members are entirely volunteers and many have had relatively little experience with the most dangerous types of calls. Senior commanders are responsible to make sure that firefighters don’t take inappropriate risks, especially when no human lives are in jeopardy. “There are many times we’ve had to reel them back to keep them from getting injured,” Young said.
Young said he is working with the district’s board of directors to come up with a plan to expand the number of experienced commanders available to handle major incidents.
“This is going to be the most significant change we have gone through in 15 years,” he said.