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Labor dispute also heats up; Oct. 26 and 27 meetings set as budget woes deepen


By Miriam Raftery


October 20, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – Residents in the Dehesa area of unincorporated El Cajon will be losing a firefighting structure engine and a wildland fire engine due starting November 1.


In addition, a three-man engine will be replaced by a two-man paramedic crew—a situation that the San Miguel Firefighters Association (SMFA) contends on its website is “unsafe” but that the District contends is necessary due to dwindling property tax revenues that fund firefighting services.


In protest over the decision made by the San Miguel Fire District board, the SMFA union withdrew its support from the District’s Safe and Sound Fire Expo last weekend, forcing cancellation of the event. Firefighters have also withdrawn support from off-duty support of Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training activities.

Expect sparks to fly at the next San Miguel Fire District board meeting on October 26 at 5:30 p.m. in the District’s headquarters at 2850 Via Orange Way, Spring Valley.  In addition, a special community meeting will be held October 27 at 6 p.m. on the Dehesa area plan, also at the Distirct headquarters. Letters will be mailed Monday to 1,300 area citizens notifying them of the situation.  

The union has not responded to requests for an interview with ECM.

A story that ECM ran last week on cancellation of the Fire Expo drew heated comments from both union supporters and critics.

“Did you know the Chief is the HIGHEST paid in the county and receives a FULL retirement from SDFD and while the firefighter's took pay cuts he got a pay raise? “ one union supporter posted, also objecting to medical benefits for staff, funding of a public information officer and training programs while firefighters have seen cuts in benefits and pay. “Did you know that while "supporting" one of these programs the Chief allowed an engine to go out of service in a busy community and a serious medical call occurred with a less than desirable outcome?” the poster asked. “Did you know that they are reducing staffing at another fire station ... hope it's not your house that's on fire!”

But another poster, who identified himself as a retired firefighter, had a different view. “I am truly ashamed to be connected to these union members. To pullout of the Safe and Sound Expo shows just unprofessional theses men and women are,” he said, accusing the union of “scare” tactics. “The fact is that these men and women have been very well paid for years and years….You decide, do you want a fire engine in your fire station or do you want to continue to pay these union members large salaries and benefit packages?”

Chief August Ghio told ECM he was “disappointed in my firefighters” for pulling out of the Fire Expo. “Labor and management need to separate work we do for the communities and negotiations,” he said, adding that the union pulled its support just one day before the event, leaving no time to round up other volunteers. He also disputes claims on the union website that firefighters were to volunteer time at the Expo. “We were actually paying them overtime,” he said.

Some CERT training will continue, according to Ghio. “Although they have written letters withdrawing from these programs, I’ve ordered them to do it on duty. I can’t order them to do it off-duty,” he said.
Asked about the impasse,“Let’s face it, we’re in hard economic times.”

Regarding calls for administrative cuts, Ghio replied, “We heard the citizens. They said cut back. We did, on staff, employee compensation and benefits, goods and services. Now the only place to go is we are looking at cutting back on the level of services.”

The decision to eliminate fire engines in Dehesa occurred because Station 23 on Dehesa Road has the lowest volume of incidents and most are medical, many of them in the City of El Cajon where mutual aid could handle calls. “To reduce a few more dollars we will reduce from three person crew to two,” he confirmed.

The union’s website has a video which cites a National Institute of Standards study that found controlling a fire is 20 to 25 percent faster with a four or five man crew than with a two or three man crew. That’s true. However Ghio says the two-man crew will only handle medical calls and will not be fighting fires, though the crew could establish incident command.

“We’re working with El Cajon, Sycuan, our mutual aid partners to try to do the best we can for our citizens,” he said when asked about concerns over safety. “We’re between a rock and hard spot,” he said, noting that a fire district, unlike cities, cannot shift funds from parks and rec or other non-essential services. “We’re stuck with whatever we have in property tax and we have to make due. Our employees have already been hit with significant benefits and compensation reductions…We’ve gone from being one of the highest compensated in the County—top one to three percent—but now our guys are in the middle; I can’t justify lowering them down to the bottom.” He added that the District is trying to reduce firefighters’ overtime expenses by looking into hiring part-time certified paramedics graduated from the District’s training academy.

A parcel tax to fund fire services in the District was recently defeated by voters, after costing the District $50,000 to place it on the ballot. “We can’t chance that again,” said Ghio.

Ghio has opposed a labor recommendation to brown out a fire station, opting instead for paramedic-only staffing. He notes that when San Diego browned out eight engine companies for a year, a toddler died because medical help came too late. “I don’t want to close a fire station,” he said.

Asked about specific cuts already made, Ghio said the District has reduced staffing over the past three years and cut one engine company serving the Mount Helix area, though all fire stations remain open. “We eliminated a full time training campaign and the equivalent of half a clerical position. Besides that, we’ve cut over 800 hours in goods and services.” Employees are paying their “full share” of retirement (9 percent for safety, 8 percent for non-safety members) so that saved the district a million dollars…The board members have cut a share of their compensation that was equal to what the rank and file employees have done.”

As to whether he is one of the highest paid chiefs in the County, Ghio said, “Yes, I was before the cuts.” He added that he is paying his 9 percent share for his retirement and is looking at taking some furlough days this year to help balance the budget.

He opposes eliminating staff such as the public information officer position. “He brings in more grant funds than his salary,” Ghio noted, adding that staff also handles worker compensation claims as well as the community readiness program at a time when the District has lost its volunteer Fire Safe Council, formerly headed up by members of the now-closed Rancho San Diego Chamber of Commerce. “We’re one of the highest wild land interface councils in the county, with a lot of unburned growth that feeds right into the San Miguel District, he said. “Fire prevention and preparedness go hand in hand.” Preventing fires before they start can save the District money in the long run by reducing firefighting costs, he added.

“We love strong volunteers,” Ghio said when asked how the public can help ease the crunch. The District is looking for community volunteers willing to restart its Fire Safe Council. Ghio also encourages community members to join CERT programs and receive volunteer training to help during emergencies and recovery stages.” Volunteers, such as school groups, may be able to help man the next Fire Expo, he noted. The District is also in the process of setting up a nonprofit that will be able to receive funds for key programs, Ghio said.

Chief Ghio does not fault firefighters for being frustrated over the situation. “The firefighters are doing the best they can,” he said, adding that most are young and have not weathered deep recession in the past. “This is a global economy that affects everyone, even firefighters.”

As for the tough choices facing the cash-strapped District, Ghio concludes, “These are wicked decisions that I personally would rather not have to make, but that’s my job.”


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Board members and PIO

From what I understand, the PIO brings in more in grant money for the district than he is paid. Sounds like a win for the community.
As for board meetings, read the facts at San Miguel's website under board minutes. Seems to me there are too many closed session meetings regarding labor issues. Also does not address committee meetings that all board members are also attending. I have spoken to past and present board members and the have all said lots of time committed to being a board member. Curious as to what the hourly cost actually is.
Just sayin'

San Miguel Fire District

Maybe its time for the citizens of the San Miguel Fire Dist. DEMAND adequate fire protection and to put pressure on the powers to be to contract with Cal-Fire for the San Miguel Fire Dist. Cal-Fire already has several contracts throughout California, our nearest neighbor Riverside. Cal-Fire would be able to staff the stations with at least 3 personnel and during the summer fire season with seasonal fire fighters to make it a 4 person crew. I strongly suggest this be looked at, having a fire district with only 2 firefighters per engine is not RESPONSIBLE fire protection.

cal-fire hell NO!!!

If you knew anything about san Diego county fire you would know that cal-fire is already partner up with san Diego rural fire for san diego county fire. The catch is that cal-fire already cant afford what they do down here, so the result is that the stations that they do staff are already under staffed with only 2 which is the minimum but most of the stations go from being staffed with who ever is available for a few days and then can be un-staffed for weeks. Eventually It will catch up to them and people will start complaining. They had the perfect system before in the volunteers, since the calls are few and far between and do not warrent a full time station. This economic situation will only get worse if we don't make sense of the whole Outlook.

Maybe you should look deeper at the issues

The firefighters withdrawing from the Fire Expo did not “force the cancelation” of the Expo; the District cancelled the expo because the Chief and the Board thought the firefighters would turn the expo into a political rally. The firefighters had already done the planning and coordinating for the Expo, the Expo could have continued without the additional firefighters on overtime.

The firefighters are the ones making the “wicked decisions” by saying that the District should not be spending money on overtime for a Fire Expo. The expo is a great event, but not during these hard economic times; do the tax payers want hotdogs and balloons at an Expo or firefighters and fire trucks to respond to emergencies?

The Chief and the Fire Board members would have you believe that the firefighters have withdrawn from the programs that the District provides, such as CERT, CPR, and Community Disaster Preparedness. The firefighters have been saying for the past four years that these programs should be done “one duty” and not as paid overtime.

The Chief claims that the district has reduced staffing, that is true, and so far:

9 firefighters have been lost by shutting down a fire engine

The Training Captain position that was eliminated was also a firefighter

A fire prevention inspector that was eliminated, was firefighter

With the proposed closure of the fire engine in Dehesa another three firefighters would be eliminated, making a grand total of 14 firefighters eliminated. In contrast, administration, or support staff, has cut “half a clerical position”. The Board of Directors, who meet twice a month, are paid for each meeting and have the same medical benefits as the full time employees of the district. That makes them the highest paid Board in the county.

Right now the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District has fewer firefighters and fire engines and more support staff than it ever has in its history. Is this what the taxpayers of the district want from their fire department? The district needs to provide basic fire suppression and emergency medical response first.

That should be an easy decision for anybody to make.

Board Benefits

This is one of the most sickening things ... "The Board of Directors, who meet twice a month, are paid for each meeting and have the same medical benefits as the full time employees of the district. That makes them the highest paid Board in the county." At least 3 board members are offered medical benefits from their current employers but instead take the "cash option" and then use the benefits San Miguel FD offers. If these board members were truely holding these board positions to be a liaison between the public and the fire department why are the senselessly costing the district THOUSANDS of dollars in tax payer money to support their benefits. They need to relinquish their San Miguel benefits and utilize their own benefits!! Basically they are ripping off the tax payers for their own selfish gain ... way to go elected official!!

Board Meeting

Oct 26, at 5:30

Share your thoughts and learn about the problem.

There are way to many chiefs in this department. This department needs to realize that when the public calls for help it's the firefighters that come to the door. This chief is all talk and no action. Time for him to go and be retired for good. We need a leader that is going to truly look at the entire department for savings. Look at other departments around the local area. The last people to go should be the firefighters that do the Life Safety work. I am sorry to say that even the secretaries and admin staff need to be looked at. These days we need people to step up and do the jobs of a few people. We don't have the money to have a person for even administrative job. Board Members and Chief do the job the public wants you to do.

give back

Wonder if they are going to give back the $250.00 per doorknob fire fee now that they are pulling back protection from Dehesa?

give back

Wonder if they are going to give back the $250.00 per doorknob fire fee now that they are pulling back protection from Dehesa?