Fire Staffing is Simmering Stew at Mayor’s Forum

An informational meeting about key issues facing San Marino generated a roiling convergence of interest groups in Huntington Middle School’s cafeteria last week, resulting in some impassioned exchanges and uncomfortable moments.
The discussion topics for Mayor Eugene Sun’s community forum were Fire Department staffing and two impending ballot measures: the public safety tax and utility user tax.
This resulted in a large contingent of firefighters (including some from neighboring agencies) sitting across from the man with whom they are currently at a contract negotiating impasse, City Manager John Schaefer. The room also held staunch supporters of the firefighters, advocating no reductions in staffing, as well as community budget hawks who feel the city needs to scale back expenditures in that department and others. Further, the assembly held proponents of the public safety and utility user taxes, which will be on the Nov. 3 ballot and are considered vital underpinnings for fire and other services here.
Sun and Schaefer moderated a discussion on Fire Department staffing, in which the city proposes to save $130,000 in overtime per year by at times limiting the city’s engine crew to three firefighters rather than the current four. Nathan Foth, president of San Marino’s firefighters’ union, joined colleagues in asserting that this would be unwise policy.
Then an incident occurred that caused some in attendance to shift uncomfortably in their chairs.
After the fire staffing discussion ended, Schaefer said he would move on to the two taxes, and pointedly urged the firefighters to remain, noting that the issues would have an important impact on the city’s operations going forward.
Schaefer was just a few words into his presentation when the firefighters rose and walked out of the room en masse. (Only two eventually returned.)
Sitting toward the front of the room, Jerry Hawk, one of the chairs of the committee trying to get voters to approve the public safety and utility user taxes, turned to observe the exodus and shook his head.
“Despite John’s suggestion to stay and hear the comments about the two tax measures, they saw fit to leave,” Hawk said afterward, “and that was regrettable.”
Set squarely amid these contentious wranglings is the effort to renew the public safety parcel tax, which will account for more than $2.9 million in revenues in the current fiscal year — nearly one-fourth of the city’s police and fire budget.
“It would be a lot simpler [to renew the taxes] if we didn’t have the acrimony of the city-vs.-the-union issue,” Hawk said.
The contract negotiations had been conducted confidentially over recent months, but the enmity burst through those closed doors in late September at the otherwise-innocuous occasion of the Chamber of Commerce’s annual Police and Fire Appreciation Luncheon.
This year’s honoree, chosen by the firefighters themselves, was Foth, who took the microphone at the San Marino Center and proceeded to blast Schaefer for his proposal to reduce staffing on the fire engine.
Sun, who at the time stepped in to say that the city manager was doing the bidding of the City Council, detailed rising Fire Department costs at the outset of last week’s community meeting.
He pointed out that since fiscal year 2013-14, Fire Department personnel costs have jumped from $4 million to $5 million to the current $5.43 million annually. “With these increases, it’s not sustainable,” the mayor said.
Schaefer’s suggested remedy is to pare $130,000 in overtime expenditures out of current levels, which topped out at $390,137 for the last fiscal year. That overtime money, he said, is used to backfill a shift when a firefighter calls in sick, is on vacation, is unavailable because of an injury or is receiving training. It amounts to $1,000-1,200 per day.
San Marino used to be able to plug the gap with a temporary firefighter who didn’t warrant benefits, the city manager added, but that contract provision expired at the end of June, and the firefighters’ union didn’t agree to continuing the use of part-timers. So the city’s only recourse is to pay overtime to a current firefighter to cover the shift.
“Our only other option,” Schaefer said, “is to reduce four-man staffing on the engine for what might be a third of the time.”
Foth and several other firefighters suggested it would be folly to reduce staffing in this manner, citing the requisite “2 in, 2 out” policy for fighting a structural fire.
A dictate of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, it holds that the first crew to arrive at a fire must send a minimum of two firefighters into a structure while having two others outside with the engine, in the event one or both firefighters need to be rescued. The only exception to this is when it’s clear that the rescue of a person within the home or business is necessitated. Otherwise, a three-person crew would have to wait for another fire unit to arrive before going inside to fight the fire.
“We had 11 fire calls [in San Marino] last year,” Foth said. “If the rescue (ambulance) is out of town and if we go to that house, we’re going to sit there and we’re going to wait. Legally, we’re not allowed to go into that home.”
The average property loss in the 11 fires last year, he said, was $3,500. “There are multimillion-dollar homes here,” Foth continued. “You’re hoping that those other engines are not on calls. A fire doubles in size every two minutes. The real concern is, what is the level of service that you want? Do you want a fire department to come to your house at any time and come in and put out that fire?”
A number of residents indicated that this is exactly what they want. One said that in a time of drought in California, when fire danger is heightened, this is the wrong time to be cutting back on staffing on the fire engine.
But Sun’s expressed concern about the sustainability of the Fire Department’s steadily rising costs was echoed by some residents who have been raising alarms about the city’s budget.
“I think the whole thing boils down to — we love the Police Department, we love the Fire Department — but the budget seems to be totally out of control,” said longtime resident Dale Pederson. “It seems to me that every budget for next year is based on this budget, and it increases by 4% or 5% and everybody’s happy. … It just seems like a logical question for some of us who have been involved in business that you just don’t keep going next year based on what you’ve done this year and keep going up and up and up.”
At the conclusion of the stormy discussion about staffing, Sun said of the budget squeeze, “If we don’t do anything, it’s going to get worse,” but he optimistically added of the stalled contract negotiations, “I think we can come to some common ground where we can get this solved.”

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