Interim Zayante Fire Chief Dan Walters is a likable guy. Sitting across from him on a picnic table outside of the Zayante Fire Station, Walters is easy-going and full of pride: not for himself, but for the men and women who voluntarily serve the fire district that has been under his watch since July 24.
Walters succeeded outgoing Fire Chief John Stipes, who at the time of his retirement was the longest-serving fire chief in the county.
Walters was one of several candidates who applied for the role, and he’s hoping to remain at the helm of the department that serves a 15-square-mile area of Santa Cruz County.
“I’m in this position until December when the board will make their decision to either keep me on, or start a recruitment program to find a new chief,” he said. “They’re public elected officials, and they’re going to do what they think is best for the district.”
For now, Walters says things are going great.
“I have a good relationship with the board, and they seem to be happy with the way things are going,” he said.
After 30-plus years in the fire service, Walters has done nearly every job except for chief. He’s no stranger to the stresses that come with the position, and he’s already making headway in improving practices within the district for his crew of 23 volunteers. With an average of 40 calls for service per month—winter months are more demanding for the department—Walters is ready to talk improvements.
- The appropriation of a Quick Response Vehicle (QRV) was one of his first moves; he gestures to a white pickup truck parked on the lot. “That was an unused vehicle, and it’s being reconfigured as an EMS vehicle at Lompico Station 2.” With no engineer to drive a fire engine in Lompico, the engine was moved to Zayante, and the QRV will be stationed in Lompico to allow for a more rapid response to medical emergencies. “There’s an old Lompico Water District building next to the station; if things go well, I’m hoping that we can acquire that building and house an engine there as well.” If it’s a success, says Walters, that would be the first time that both medical and fire apparatus will be housed in Lompico for rapid response.
- Zayante used to only have staffing during the week, but Walters has created a new normal, shifting schedules to ensure there is coverage every weekend.
- “We’re getting ready to purchase a new engine, so we’re taking a hard look at the district’s needs.” A new engine costs anywhere between $450,000-600,000, and that’s a lot of money for a little department. Walters is looking for a Type 3 rig that will allow for increased wildland access in the rural communities of Zayante and Lompico. The district needs to replace a 29-year old engine, and Walters says it makes sense to invest in a vehicle that can meet the demands of the terrain.
- Technology is finding its way into the Zayante department. “We’re doing a lot of tech updates, and rolling out new AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location) systems in the vehicles.” That improvement is done using tablets; all the incidents are listed in software on the platform, and specific information for each fire call populates for first responders.
- Speaking of technology, cell service is awful at the station, which can create challenges for firefighters. Walters says there are County requirements around installing a new cell tower to improve communications, but the bigger issue is the resistance from locals who don’t want a cell tower planted near their homes. The department has installed a repeater in the station, but it doesn’t always work optimally outside of the metal housing.
- The department’s civil defense air raid warning system is also in dire need of an upgrade. (The siren is used to provide an emergency warning to the area of approaching danger.) Zayante’s siren hasn’t worked in upwards of 10 years, and Walters wants that changed for the safety of his residents. “When we lose power in the area, we’re knocked back to third-world status; without phones, television or internet, we have no idea that something significant is happening.” Walters cites the CZU Lightning Complex as an example of that communications isolation. “I found out about the fires when an Alameda County sheriff knocked on my door; I had no idea that anything was happening, and that’s a problem.”
Ultimately, Walters is hoping that the Zayante Fire Protection District will determine that he’s the right man for the job, and remove the word “interim” from his title.
“For me, this is home,” he said.