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Ripon fire chief turns down pay for 2nd time
Ripon Consolidated Fire District Chief Dennis Bitters at work in his office. Bitters turned down his pay raises two years in a row to help ease the district’s financial burden during a down economy. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO
RIPON – Chief Dennis Bitters of the Ripon Consolidated Fire District was up for a salary raise each year for the last two years.

Both times, he turned it down.

Not that he did not need or want the money. On the contrary, he had two good reasons to welcome the financial boost. His wife, Carla, got laid off from her job with the United States Bankruptcy Court in Modesto where she had worked for two decades. And they could have used the money to help their daughter, Lauren, who is holding down two part-time jobs while going to college full-time at California State University, Stanislaus.

But, Bitters said, “As the economy was bad, I just, in good conscience, did not think it was right. It just made sense to me. I thought it was the right thing to do.”

The money that could have gone to his pocket made it easier for the fire district to live up to its contractual obligations to rank and file personnel whose pay raises, which are tied to cost of living index and other factors each year, are built into their contract.

“We honored the raises that were in their contract,” said Bitters whose department was not spared from the economic downturn which dealt a significant erosion in their budget as property taxes, the major source of the district’s funding, took a sharp nosedive.

They also did not have to lay off any staff even though the district, like other agencies such as Lathrop-Manteca Fire, relies mainly on property taxes revenue to keep their doors and services open.

“We’re not rich but we’re keeping our head above water,” said Bitters who rose to the rank of chief in 2003 after having been with the district since 1982 starting as a volunteer firefighter. He became a full-time member of the staff in 1990. Before that, he worked for the now-defunct Ripon Farm Service where he sold agricultural chemicals to farmers for their crops. His background in hazardous materials was one of the things that qualified him for the job, he said.

Financial belt tightening is nothing new to Bitters. His professional migration from his job with the Ripon Farm Service to the fire district meant he had to take a big pay cut. But after being persuaded by a former co-worker who was a volunteer firefighter to do the same, Bitters was bitten by the fire bug.

When his co-worker first approached him with the idea of serving as a volunteer firefighter, Bitters said, “I thought, why not? So I tried it, and it grew on me. Then lo and behold, when I was 30, I became a full-time firefighter.”

It’s the perfect job for you “if you like helping people,” he said.

Being a firefighter also teaches you how to think out of the box, such as how to solve a situation where someone’s head got stuck between the rails in a staircase, he said. It’s always a challenge, he added.

There’s also the philanthropic side of it. “You really get to help people. At the end of the day, you can go home and feel like you made a difference in someone’s life, and it’s a pretty good thing. It’s not about money or about anything. It’s about liking to do it. And you get to play with some pretty cool equipment,” he added with a smile in his voice.

Bitters heads a staff of 14 full-time sworn fire personnel including deputy fire marshal Joel Castro. Augmenting the small staff, which services the district’s 59-square-mile jurisdiction, is a large volunteer-firefighter base of some 35 to 38 people who carry voice pagers all the time. Volunteers help staff Station 2 on Murphy Road from Friday to Monday. The rest of the week, that station is closed. While some fire districts pay their volunteers, Ripon Fire volunteers do not get any remuneration.

Station 1 in downtown Ripon is open 24/7. The ambulance, which brings in about $500,000 in revenue each year to the district, runs out of Station 1 only. The district also has reserve firefighters who are paid $24 an hour per shift.

Ripon Consolidated Fire District, which will celebrate its 90th year in 2011, is the second oldest district in San Joaquin County, predated only by the fire district in Escalon which was established in 1912.

There’s a reason why the word Consolidated is in the Ripon fire district’s official name.

First, there was a Ripon fire department which served the township of Ripon, “one square block of town,” as Bitters put it.

Later on, a Rural Firemen’s Association was formed to cover the rural areas of Ripon. In 1960, the two consolidated and became a legal entity that is now the Ripon Consolidated Fire District.