City Allowing Fire Department Overtime as it Awaits Study

As the city awaits an analytical study assessing the San Marino Fire Department’s operations, the City Council has clarified an authorization for the agency to continue backfilling employee absences through overtime work.
It was a unanimous vote — sans absent Councilman Richard Ward — that allowed interim City Manager Cindy Collins and Fire Chief Mario Rueda to continue filling four-person fire engines “at their discretion.” Because Rueda and his firefighters have staunchly advocated four-person crews over three-person, it is expected he will continue using overtime work to fill those vacancies as needed.
The decision temporarily puts to rest a longstanding discussion, advanced primarily by Councilman Dr. Steven Huang, on whether to curb the fire department’s budget by cutting back on overtime usage. Huang noted a $1.6-million increase in the department’s overall budget since the 2013-14 fiscal year, which did not appear to be tied to salaries.
“Please understand, I’m trying to spend every penny like it’s mine,” Huang said at the meeting.
Generally, a two-person ambulance and a four-man fire engine respond to calls. Given that each of San Marino’s firefighters is also a certified paramedic, this puts six paramedics on calls that have become increasingly health-related.
Data presented at the meeting showed 465 of the 846 calls within San Marino city limits last year fell within the recommendations of “advanced life support” service, as opposed to “basic life support.” The ALS calls are recommended to have four responding firefighters on an engine.
The 1,050 calls outside of San Marino last year included 780 ALS calls.
“I didn’t realize there were 465 incidents in the city last year that required four firefighters,” Councilman Steve Talt said. “That’s more than one a day.”
There had been a litany of backlash against the notion the city would restrict having four firefighters to an engine at all times in an effort to reel in expenses. Numerous firefighters have spoken before the council to stress the cohesive importance of having six paramedics at a medical emergency, and at this meeting, numerous testimonials and letters by citizens were presented in support of their work.
Lyn Riley, director of Fire Department and Law Enforcement Continuing Education and Quality Improvement Programs at UCLA, also explained the benefits from a medical standpoint of staffing a full emergency response.
“By far, San Marino has the best fire department I have ever worked with,” she added.
Collins said the purpose of this meeting’s vote was to clarify a similar decree in July. She added the city plans on addressing the fire department’s overtime budget for adjustment at its mid-fiscal year meeting in January, and also evaluating the general performance of the agency no later than May, when the deployment study is finished.
The budget assigned $230,000 in overtime money for the fire department at the beginning of this fiscal year. As of the date of this meeting, it had used $150,000 of that amount. Collins said more would likely be added in January, at the authority of the City Council.
Previous years’ overtime expenditures have been between $375,000 and $509,000, depending on staffing vacancies. For his part, Rueda said he is close to filling the two vacancies in his department.
“We’re aggressively filling our positions as quickly as we can,” he said.
Rueda added that tapping into overtime is typical of the fire department because of how employees spread out their vacation time, sick time, holidays and other accrued paid leaves. There also are injuries on the job to consider.
“It seems like the overtime is inevitable,” Huang conceded during the meeting.
City to Mull Donation for Athletic Complex
In a joint City Council-San Marino Unified School District Board meeting, the two bodies discussed the former potentially contributing financially to the forthcoming athletic complex at Huntington Middle School.
Although there was discussion, talks are in “the very early stages,” as emphasized by Mayor Dr. Allan Yung. SMUSD Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss has proposed a $2 million donation from the city, framed as an advance for facility rental fees the city would expect to incur.
The item saw a plethora of audience input, ranging from former students and current parents lamenting the lack of a true athletic complex for the city’s youth and longtime residents cautioning against spending a few million dollars while trying to assess its own financial operations (such as the recreation department).
Cherniss said he hopes to provide additional information on proposed usage at a forthcoming meeting.
Some Progress on
Cell Towers
Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes gave a brief update on the status of two cellphone towers that must be relocated from school properties.
A tower owned by Verizon will be relocated from San Marino High School to county property and should not concern the city at that point, Cervantes said.
However, the AT&T tower at Huntington Middle School must be relocated within city limits for the company’s coverage, Cervantes said. There was a possible solution in the tower atop SPIN Movement on Huntington Drive across from City Hall.
Unfortunately, Cervantes said, building code forbids adding 10 feet to the tower’s height and a variance was unlikely to be recommended. The next alternative is building and operating the 70-foot tower behind City Hall on a lease basis.
Yung assured residents the city is moving carefully on this issue to ensure it will be happy with the outcome.

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