The cost of paramedic and fire service in this community, like many other communities, has been growing faster than the revenues. In order to maintain the current level of fire and emergency services, deficit spending using reserve funds became necessary. Chief Jeff Willis along with 10 members of the Big Bear Fire Board understand that this practice is unsustainable. In response, they have initiated several community forums to help decide an acceptable level of local fire and paramedic service.
In a recent public meeting the Fire Board, made up of Community Service District Board Members and Big Bear Lake City Council, in a split vote directed Chief Willis to cut costs by not replacing ageing equipment and also to curb overtime costs by the Sugarloaf Fire Station. The Chief describes the Sugarloaf Station as “undermanned” with just two professional firefighters on duty. If the Sugarloaf station closes those firefighters will be reassigned to stations in Big Bear Fire. Although the board majority recommend immediate cuts, they will not go into effect until after the April 17th Big Bear Fire Department Workshop meeting. The location of this workshop will be announced later as a large turnout is expected.
The merger of the the Big Bear Lake Fire Department with the Big Bear City Community Services District Fire Department has remained on target with cost sharing efforts but that has not been sufficient to bridge the growing budget gap. Many reasons have been described for this including a growing demand for service, ageing populations, and residents and visitors using 911 as their first call for medical care. This shift from fire fighting to paramedic care seems to also mirror demographic changes in Southern California. This has not been lost to many residents who see tourist visits to Big Bear Valley as simply adding to the budget squeeze. This new reality is perhaps shared by other tourist destinations in a region where outdoor recreation and open space is at a premium.
The question is, does Big Bear want to maintain or decrease the current level of emergency services or try to match growing demand levels. And if so, “who” and “how” does the community pay for it. Chief Willis has floated several funding concepts that propose allowing the costs to be spread between stakeholders including property owners, residents, and visitors. At this time they say there is no magic formula or silver bullet to get there but they believe with the help of the community, short and long term solutions will be developed. The Big Bear Fire Department Board meets next on April 17, 2019 at 4:30 PM. The location will be announced at a later date.