Fire Staffing Cut as Council Reins in Overtime

Staffing on San Marino’s fire engine will be reduced by one person about one-third of the time in the coming fiscal year, following a belt-tightening action by the City Council last week.
Faced with Fire Department overtime costs that have escalated gradually over the last four years — the result of using a firefighter on an overtime basis to maintain full staffing on the engine at all times — the council agreed to cap Fire Department overtime in 2016-17.
City Manager John Schaefer said it costs roughly $1,000 per day in overtime, or $352,000 for a year, to keep four firefighters on the engine 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The council opted to limit the annual overtime to $230,000, which means the engine will operate with three firefighters about one-third of the time in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Councilman Steve Talt said that this “experiment” will give the city an indication of just what level of staffing is essential. Talt said that after an upcoming Fire Department deployment study is completed, and a labor deal with the firefighters’ union is negotiated, and “after we have some real experiences [with three-person staffing on the engine] … my promise to everyone is that we will take a serious new look at it. But right now we’re dealing with an overtime situation that is out of control.”
The reduced figure will be included in the final draft of the 2016-17 budget, which the council could approve at its meeting next week.
Several members of the Fire Department objected to a proposal that will at times result in a reduction in service.
“As you shave defenses,” said Fire Chief Mario Rueda, “there’s the potential … somebody in here might be the victim of that experiment, because we can’t predict when [emergencies] will occur.”
During a break from the meeting, Deputy Chief Mark Phillips said, “If we drop below four [firefighters on the engine], I have concerns about safety, not only for firefighters on duty but for the citizens.”
Council members have been motivated by a sense of alarm about overtime costs that have risen steadily in each of the past four years, from $338,816 in fiscal year 2011-12 to $390,137 in 2014, with an estimate that is even higher for the fiscal year that will conclude at the end of this month.
Filling a shift on an overtime basis is required when a firefighter goes on vacation, is sick, is injured on duty or is absent for other reasons. There was shock on the faces of the council members when they were told that in San Marino, an average of one such Fire Department absence is anticipated for every 24-hour shift — every day of the year.
In the future, the council may consider authorizing the hire of another full-time firefighter, or a couple of part-timers, but for now it is content to conduct a trial on reduced staffing some of the time.
Fire Department members argue that four on the engine is an optimal standard. After a string of firefighter deaths, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the late 1990s established a mandatory policy of “two in, two out.” It stipulated that a four-person crew must be in place before a burning building is entered — unless there is a person inside who is in immediate need of help. Under the policy, two firefighters go in together, and two remain outside in the event a rescue of the firefighters inside is needed.
Fire officials argue that if they have a three-person engine crew, and San Marino’s two-person ambulance is engaged on another call, they would have to wait until a neighboring unit arrived before being able to attack the fire from inside a structure. This could increase the amount of property damage, they say, adding that a fire doubles in size in two minutes.
Fire officials also contend that full staffing is also essential in medical emergencies, notably cardiac arrests. The Fire Department has provided figures showing that 58% of its calls in 2015 were for medical emergencies and rescues.
San Marino fire officials also objected to the prediction that this year’s department overtime will be $454,000. Phillips noted that as part of the command staff that San Marino has been sharing with San Gabriel and South Pasadena, a chief’s position shifted into a 24-hour category that is subject to overtime. He said $47,000 of that cost will be recovered from the other cities.
Even with that reimbursement, however, San Marino’s 2015-16 Fire Department overtime would come in at $407,000, a 4% increase from the previous year.
Addressing adequate response to an emergency, Schaefer cited San Marino’s participation in the Verdugo Fire Communications Center, for which the city pays $60,000 annually. It allows for fire agencies to drop their borders and respond to fires to help fellow members.
In settling on the final overtime cap, the council engaged in a spirited bartering session. The mayor, Dr. Allan Yung, had requested at the previous meeting that the allotment be cut in half, to $183,000 for the year. That was the opening bid in last week’s meeting. Talt threw out a figure of $230,000. Schaefer countered with a suggestion of $275,000. Rueda stepped in and requested $360,000. Ultimately, the council settled on $230,000.
Nathan Foth, president of the San Marino Firefighters Association, said, “When you talk about an experiment, you have to ask yourself who the first victim of that is and is it worth it?”
Talt responded: “There are risk assessments that we go through all the time.”
And Yung said: “Deciding what we want and what we can afford is a very difficult thing.”

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