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Fire at Alameda Point

With Alameda firefighters in the news a good deal (they’re collecting signatures for an amendment to the city charter that would mandate minimum staffing levels, the city is suing to block the proposed charter amendment, and they’re wrestling with cut backs–the ‘browned out‘ station was last week switched from Bay Farm to the west end) they also made news this weekend for doing what they do: fighting fires.

The Alameda Point fire started in the wee hours Sunday morning, and a trail of smoke blowing what looked like south east was still prominent from the Oakland hills on Sunday evening. Apparently the area has seen a number of small fires over the years and is in an area frequented by youths. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

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Alameda firefighters making ‘robo’ calls

I got a phone call yesterday with a recorded message from an Alameda firefighter. The message was so fast that I did not catch the name of the firefighter who was speaking, though I think it was Mike or Mark. The core of the message was that cuts to the fire department (on January 26 the department has been mandated to reduce overtime) will impact response time for some Alameda neighborhoods. The message mentioned the Gold Coast, Bay Farm and Alameda’s West End and then urged the listener to lobby City Hall to prevent cuts. How much does it cost to auto-dial every Alameda household? Who funds these efforts?

I can’t help but think of the line from Obama’s speech Tuesday, in which he honored the hard work and sacrifices Americans are making to make things better for all of us. He referenced employees who allow their own hours to be cut so others may keep their jobs. That is bravery, no? To say, I will make do with a little less so others don’t lose everything entirely.

In a time when so many are losing jobs, losing retirement security, having their pay cut and otherwise struggling economically, I can not find legitimacy in the stance being taken by Alameda firefighters. There is not an infinite pot of money. Times are bad. Everyone should be impacted as budgets shrink…not everyone with the exception of some. Of course I wish it weren’t so…of course everyone wishes it weren’t so. But it is. So, it’s time to move away from the adversarial stance, an I-me-my orientation, and it’s time for the firefighters to work with the city to maintain emergency services as well as all the other services that make for a vital community.

As I have mentioned previously, Alameda firefighters make over $100,000 a year, with many earning 10 and 20 and 40 thousand additional dollars a year in over time. Alameda firefighters receive full, life-time medical benefits for themselves and a spouse after just five years of service. They are eligible to retire at 50, with 3 percent of their highest salary in pension for each year of service. Meanwhile, Alameda’s non-public safety employees receive only a tiny stipend (something around $100 a month) toward health care in retirement, and they are eligible to retire at 55, with 2 percent of their highest salary per year of service in pension. I am not, of course, saying that I don’t think firefighters should be well-compensated and have security in retirement…I just think that taking a hard bargain stance when the current system is so out of balance (so many employees now have no pensions, no health care on retirement…heck, no health care even while they are working) and when the economy is such a disaster is really perplexing.

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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.

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Alameda City Council to discuss rotating fire station brown outs tonight

Michele Ellson over at The Island has a bit about the brown outs. The meeting is at City Hall and starts at 7:30 p.m. The agenda is here. John Knox White has more on other issues to be discussed at the meeting, including what the hours at the wine bar, the Alameda Wine Company, should be.