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June 03, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, June 03, 2005

Fighting fire, burning rubber Fighting fire, burning rubber (June 03, 2005)

Firefighters endure long commutes to find affordable homes

By Jon Wiener

Of all the horrible commute stories Mountain View firefighters can tell, Damon Norvell has easily the worst.

Two years ago, commuting all the way from his native Tuolumne County in the foothills of Yosemite, Norvell was approaching Escalon when it happened. "I was just cruising along about 60 miles per hour and out of the corner of my eye saw a horse trying to cross the street at full gallop," recalled Norvell.

The crash, said Norvell, "took his head right off. Most of it came through my windshield and got all over me."

Norvell escaped unhurt, though six months later he broke his leg when he crashed his motorcycle head-on into a bear. "I had a little run there," he said, putting it mildly.

But while high-speed encounters with wildlife may be unusual, Norvell's commute is otherwise quite common. Torn between Bay Area salaries and lower home prices outside the region, Mountain View's firefighters wake up before dawn every morning in far-flung communities throughout Northern California, hop in their cars and drive 100 miles or more to work. The search for housing

John Miguel was renting an apartment in Cupertino when he joined the fire department in 1982. At the time, his wife was pregnant with their second child and he was looking to buy a home.

Three years later, he moved to Modesto, far enough from the Bay Area's housing bubble that they could afford for his wife to stay at home full-time.

"My commute is almost like a second job," said Miguel. "I look at this as just a way to afford to live."

Now the mustachioed president of the firefighters union, Miguel wakes up at 3:30 every morning, drives for an hour and a half, and sleeps at the station until his shift starts at 8 a.m. He used to get up at 6, he said, but traffic over the Altamont Pass made him change strategies.

"It's just less stressful," said Miguel. "If I leave at 5 o'clock and there's an accident or two, I'm late for work."

Greg Cooper, who left his home in Santa Cruz to buy a house in Brentwood, considers himself among the lucky ones -- he gets to sleep in until 4:30.

"To find a fixer, just a real small fixer, was going to run us over five or six hundred thousand (dollars), and that was three years ago," he said. "To find a decent house that our kids could grow up in, this is where we had to go." The long haul

Cooper, a member of the firefighter union's negotiating team, estimated that Mountain View firefighters drive a total of nearly 900,000 miles each year -- the equivalent of more than 36 trips around the globe -- just getting to and from work.

The long-distance commute is so common that officials fear off-duty firefighters and other public safety workers who live far away won't be able to respond in the event of a natural disaster. Residency rules designed to avoid that problem used to require firefighters to live within a certain distance of downtown, but those rules have been struck down by the courts.

It seems every firefighter has survived a highway collision on his or her commute, but a much more common impact is seen at the pump. A combination of high gas prices and long distances has firefighters paying a pretty penny to get to and from work, sometimes several hundred dollars every month.

Miguel estimated that, for every shift he works, he spends $20 just on gasoline -- and that's before he factors in the larger costs of insurance and maintenance.

Having chosen to live so far away from their jobs, firefighters are helpless to do much about their commutes. Some try to trade shifts so they can work back-to-back days. But the schedule -- 24-hour shifts that end at 8 a.m. -- makes carpool prospects bleak, and they can't ride the ACE train back over the Altamont (it only runs that direction in the evening). Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of public safety workers make too much to qualify for subsidized housing in town.

Several years ago, the police department was facing a similar problem. "We were losing a lot of really good officers to the Sacramento area," remembers Sergeant Chris Hsiung, a 10-year veteran of the force and newly elected president of the Police Officers' Association. The city responded by altering its schedule and building sleeping quarters for officers who wanted to stay in town for the duration of their work weeks.

As for the fire department, the city manager's office is looking into the possibility of switching from the current 54-hour work week (essentially 10 full days every three weeks) to what is known as a 48/96 schedule -- two days on followed by four days off.

The effect would be to cut the number of commute trips in half. According to Cooper, that would save an average of 6,500 miles on the roads each year, per employee -- a total of nearly a half-million miles. Other cities that have implemented the new schedule report that less time spent in traffic has provided a boost to employee morale and saved money through a corresponding reduction in sick leave. A compromise

Firefighters in Mountain View make an average annual salary of more than $100,000, counting overtime, so their exodus has more to do with their preferences for bigger houses than abject poverty forcing them out of the city. Still, only two of the city's 69 firefighters and two out of 17 support staff live within the city limits, similar to numbers seen in the police department. By comparison, a quarter of the employees in other city departments live in the city.

But as firefighters try to escape the ever more expensive Bay Area housing market, a killer commute awaits. Simply working closer to home is not always a realistic option, since few inland towns have professional departments.

"It's not just a problem localized to Mountain View," said police Sgt. Hsiung. "Every city in the Bay Area, with housing prices the way they are, is facing the same thing."

Out in Tuolumne County, Norvell now finds himself living in what has become a sort of bedroom community for Bay Area firefighters. His neighbors in the Sierra Foothills, many of whom grew up and attended the local fire academy with him, now work in departments from San Ramon and Hayward in the East Bay to San Jose in the south and Redwood City on the Peninsula.

As for Norvell himself, he now makes the three-hour, 142-mile drive to Mountain View in a Buick LeSabre he bought from his uncle, his own Grand Marquis having been totaled from the collision with the horse. If anyone has reasons to dislike the long commute, it's him.

"I hate driving," he said on the phone from his home in the Sierra Foothills. "But I just think about the benefits of living here, and it's worth it."
E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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