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It is drilled into every firefighter: Training is at the heart of a fire department's effectiveness.

"We can't afford to practice on the public" goes the firefighting mantra, said Herb Wandel, battalion chief and training officer for the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District.

He is among fire officials with neighboring agencies who say Rohnert Park's firefighters and ranking officers appear to need more training and experience.

Rohnert Park officials say their public safety officers — those assigned to law enforcement as well as those in the fire division — meet all of the legally required training levels for firefighters.

But Public Safety Lt. John Marty, who heads the fire division, acknowledged that severe budget cuts three years ago reduced the time officers on law enforcement duty worked on firefighting skills.

The city's public safety officers face a particular challenge: working as both police officers and firefighters and maintaining expertise on both fronts.

In the past, officers on the law enforcement side rotated irregularly into the fire division and arrived with rusty skills, Marty said.

"You almost had to retrain them, and we didn't want that happening," Marty said. "We've realized we need to stay on top of that."

Since 2000, more than 50 of the department's 56 current officers have gone through a three-month fire academy as a refresher.

Public Safety Director Brian Masterson, who joined the department four years ago, has instituted changes that include rotating officers into the fire division more often and making it easier for officers to stay longer in the division if they want to hone their skills.

"To me, it's pretty clear that if we're truly going to be the master of two disciplines you need to be sure that officers move back and forth between both of them," Masterson said. "That was a change."

Most police officers now moved to firefighting have a six-month stint before returning to patrol. Once in the fire division, Rohnert Park officers have a daily training regimen that is standard to traditional fire departments, including two to three hours a day practicing basic skills, including using ladders and pulling hoses, and monthly training on more specialized skills.

That is the bare-minimum level of mandated training.

What had been an average 20 hours monthly for police officers to work on firefighting skills was dropped in some cases to 10 hours, Marty said.

Another budget cost-saver, a switch to 12-hour police shifts, meant police officers do fire and police training on overtime.

The cuts also affected Rohnert Park's ability to train with its neighbors.

From time to time, Marty said, public safety officers train with other fire departments in multi-agency exercises, often held in Santa Rosa or with the Rancho Adobe district. He couldn't say how often that occurs.

Rohnert Park has an open invitation to train with Rancho Adobe, Wandel said. With the number of calls the agencies respond to jointly, "we should be training on a monthly basis."

Rancho Adobe Chief Frank Treanor said he believes Rohnert Park officers have come in for one live fire training and one fire safety class in two years.

Jack Piccinini, a Santa Rosa battalion chief and training officer, said his agency hasn't seen Rohnert Park firefighters at the Santa Rosa training tower for as long as two years.

A Santa Rosa training is set for this month, Marty said.

Doug Williams, chief of Rincon Valley and Windsor firefighters, said training with Rohnert Park is tough because they have few on-duty staff and to take three of the four or five firefighters out of town for a training would "drain all their on-duty force."

Concerns about the depth of experience of Rohnert Park's fire commanders go back years — and have surfaced within the department.

From 2008-2010 Rohnert Park's fire commander arranged for a Gold Ridge Fire Department senior officer to come from southern Sebastopol to help direct firefighting.

"(The commander) identified a need if not a weakness in their interior command and control," said former Gold Ridge Fire Chief Andy Pforsich. "Our hopes were it would have made them stronger and more effective and less dependent and more valuable to us in return."

Marty said the Gold Ridge arrangement was unnecessary.

Since 2011, Rohnert Park has paid Rancho Adobe $28,500 to provide a battalion chief for Rohnert Park calls. The battalion chief often runs the firefighting attack.

"They don't have command experience for tactics and strategy," Wandel said.

</CS><CS8.8>In two recent fires at which Rohnert Park sergeants took lead roles, it remained unclear when they last worked in the fire division. Masterson declined to release the information, saying it was a personnel issue.

</CS>Marty acknowledged he would like the department to have more depth in command positions. "We could use a little more overhead," he said.

That could come in the next several years, he said, because Rohnert Park plans to add several firefighting positions and build a station on the city's west side.

"In 20 years, we've gone from a volunteer department to a staffed agency. But now as we're growing, we're realizing that this system needs to be tweaked a little bit to stay on top of it," Marty said. "And we're listening to our counterparts."