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Life on the Island: Firefighter staffing levels

This week’s Life on the Island, the column I write for the Alameda Journal, is up online. This week it’s about cuts to the fire department, and how they’ll impact services for Alamedans. While on the one hand, no reduction in any public safety staff is acceptable—being less safe, having less access to quick medical care or having fewer firefighters on duty is not okay…no one wants this. But, in reality, these are horrible budget times and not just something, but everything, has to give.

As I write in the column, all city departments have cut back, police and fire by a smaller percentages than other departments. Alameda’s interim finance director Ann Marie Gallant addressed the fire department funding issue at this week’s city council meeting: “We don’t have too many options here. Other department services are going to have to be cut or you go into one time [payments from] cash reserves [to cover the fire department budget].” (All city departments, with the exception of police and fire, have already been cut by eight percent this year.) “Even if you were to solve it for this fiscal year, it doesn’t go away,” said Gallant. “It doesn’t go away until this city has more resources that are discretionary in the general fund to allocate for service levels you would like not necessarily service levels you can afford.”

More on the issue here.

epearlman

  • http://www.savealamedafirehouses.com Dom Weaver

    On January 26, 2009, the Alameda Fire Department will no longer provide enough on-duty firefighters / paramedics to work on all of the city’s fire apparatus and ambulances. Whenever firefighters are off (due to earned leave, injury / illness or training) and overtime is needed, the department will simply place a fire truck or ambulance out of service, depending on how many people are off that day. How often will this occur? Nearly daily!

    The current near-daily use of overtime is caused by the following factors:

    9 frozen / unfunded positions
    5 long-term injuries
    3 budgeted, yet unfilled vacancies

    You may have seen on local blogs and newspapers that earned leave (vacation) and sick leave are the primary cause, but please understand this is just a small part.

    The Fire Department had originally attempted to implement this “brown-out” of a fire company July 1, 2008. Due, in part, to public outcry, the City was able to partially fund the overtime budget and delay the brown-out until now. If the brown-out policy had been in place July 1, a closure of a fire company or ambulance would have occurred on all but six days (September 7, 9, December 10, 15, 17, January 7). This means that on 188 out of the last 194 days (through January 10, 2009), the Fire Department would have had a company out of service.

    All recent Alameda Fire Department deployment studies (completed by outside organizations) indicate the minimum safe level of deployment is 27 firefighters staffing five fire engines, two ladder trucks and three ambulances. Any less dramatically hinders the ability of the firefighters to operative safely and efficiently. One report from City Gate, completed in September, 2004 (at a cost of $50,000 to the tax payers) indicated this when the annual call volume was at 5,704. Since then, the call volume has hovered at or near 6,000 for the last three years. Another deployment study completed in July, 2008 by the IAFF indicates the need for 34 on-duty firefighters.

    The Alameda Fire Department needs all of it’s 111 sworn positions filled. A bare minimum of 27 on-duty firefighters at the stations are needed to keep the citizens, visitors and firefighters free of harm.

    Please call the City Manager or City Council members and urge them to reverse their decision. Their contact information can be found online at http://www.savealamedafirehouses.com .

    Alameda Firefighters Association

  • Jill

    Maybe the firefighters haven’t noticed, but our governments at all levels are in financial crisis. There can be no sacred cows during times like these. Would higher firefighter staffing levels be better in a perfect world? Probably. But sacrifices are being made everywhere, and the firefighters should not be an exception.

    In the present economy, the safety net across our society has some gaping holes. The biggest hole of all is the millions of people without health coverage who will die because they do not receive needed medical care. Compared to that, a few minutes’ delayed response times to emergency calls doesn’t seem like that big a deal in the scheme of things. I guess the firefighters can’t understand that because they themselves (and their families) get lifetime health coverage after only five years on the force.

    If the firefighters were willing cut costs for Alameda taxpayers by giving up that platinum benefit (which is absolutely unheard of in the private sector and even for other benefit-rich governmental employees), they could reduce or eliminate the need for brown-outs. Instead of whining about their overtime being reduced, the firefighters should be willing to do something to help out the community. Cutting their medical benefits to a level more similar to that of the taxpayers who pay their salaries would be a good first step.

  • http://actionalameda.org/actionalamedanewsblog/2008/11/17/20-million-at-stake-in-apt-bond-lawsuit/ David Howard

    We could be a rich city if mis-management by the PUB and City Council over Alameda Power & Telecom had not cost us $60 million in the failed telecom division, and another potential $25 million or so in lawsuits over the failed telecom division. And there’s another $6.5 million lawsuit against the City of Dr. Attari’s death at the Grand St. boat ramp, which could have been prevented had City Council acted when they had the chance.

    As for the firefighters, if you pay attention to what they are saying, I think you will find that they want a full complement of staff so that there isn’t so much overtime. The City has frozen or cut back positions so that overtime has become the only way to keep all of the firehouses open.

  • Andy

    But doesn’t running with less staff and paying existing staff overtime actually save the city money? And isn’t one of the reasons for this the cost of extended benefits that are paid to each employee? It’s perhaps cheaper to pay one salary + lifetime benefits + lots of overtime than two salaries + two lifetime benefits + no overtime.

  • jayne smythe

    The bigger question that doesn’t seem to be coming out of this discussion is why isn’t city hall cutting staff? Why is it that emergency service staff is the only staff at issue here? If we cut a few attorneys and a few city managers, then we could keep more fire staff and Bay Farm station open.

    What do you think?

    Why does city hall have to be a sacred cow? Or the police department, for that matter?

  • http://laurendo.wordpress.com Lauren Do

    Jayne Smith: Actually all city departments were forced to cut 8% of their budget except for fire and police which were only asked to cut 4% of their budgets.