SAN MIGUEL FIRE BOARD RACE IS HOT

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Updated October 22, 2014 - CAL FIRE Chief Tony Meacham, head of the County Fire Authority, has written to dispute statements made by two candidates in this race, which he says are "factually false."  You can read details of the Chief's statements here

By Nadin Abbott

October 18, 2014 (San Diego)--In 2012, the San Miguel Fire Board voted for CAL FIRE to take over firefighting operations. The board voted unanimously for the five-year contract because the agency was deep in a hole economically and had already closed a fire station. Those in favor argued that this decision would allow the board to continue operations, recover financially, reopen the closed station and keep service at comparable levels. But critics including at least one challenger running for the board have sharply criticized the deal with Cal-Fire,  citing loss of local control and potential delays in response times, also faulting other board actions.

East County Magazine e-mailed questions to all candidates, including inquiries about the CAL FIRE arrangement and a letter the district received from the State Comptroller raising questions over the board’s finances.

The six candidates include two incumbents (Chris Winter and Rick Augustine) seeking reelection and four challengers. Three of the challengers are running together as a slate (Theresa McKenna, Jim Ek, and Mike Vacio). The other challenger is Cindy Croucher. Bios for incumbents Winter and Augustine are available on the San Miguel Fire district website

Three candidates, challengers Theresa McKenna and Jim Ek, along with incumbent Chris Winter, have responded.  Below are the questions, and their answers, posted in full in the order received.

 

THERESA McKENNA

Reply to Candidate Questionnaire for San Miguel Fire Board

How has the new agreement with CAL FIRE worked so far? Are there things you would like to change? If they are, what would these be?

Based upon feedback I have gotten from many CalFire employees directly, the new Agreement with CalFire is not working nearly as well as it should be.  I even met with CalFire’s Unit Chief, Tony Mecham on September 26th and, he too, shared some of my concerns that he stated he, “could not admit publicly.”  

There are definitely things I would like to change within the Agreement.  The top 3 changes I would like to make directly affect the level of emergency service our Citizens receive.  First and foremost, I would change the Agreement by eliminating the top management position working in the San Miguel District from being a position held by CalFire ( the “Contractor”), and replace it with a non-CalFire employee.  The District should be managed by someone whose loyalty is to the District, not the State of California.   I feel the District lost local control when it placed a CalFire Contract employee in the top management position.   Having the Fox guarding the henhouse is simply the wrong thing to do.

Second, I would mandate that ALL delays in CalFire’s Dispatching Policy, whether verbal or in writing, be eliminated immediately.  Regardless of reason, this delay negatively impacts response times and represents a decrease in service to our Community.   

According to CalFire Chief Brian Christie’s email to the CalFire Chief overseeing the San Miguel Fire District (Chief Ray Chaney), dated September 1, 2014, “There is a one minute penalty on Engines from Lakeside, El Cajon and Santee which affects responses coming into San Miguel to compensate for the delay in the RCIP [Regional Computer-Aided Dispatch Interoperability Project] and the Heartland [Fire Communications “HTL”] dispatch reflex time when we send a call to HTL via RCIP for response into SMG [i.e., San Miguel Fire District].”  (A copy of that email exchange is attached for your convenience.) 

What this means in laymen’s terms is this:  The true closest engine may not be sent to a 911 Emergency because the CalFire dispatching computer has a 1-minute delay programmed into it.  This makes the Computer think, for example, Engine 1 is closer to a 911 Emergency when, in fact, Engine 2 is closer.   My research has confirmed that Heartland Fire Communications does not have ANY delays built into ANY of their units responding into the San Miguel Fire District and the Heartland Computer Aided Dispatch system operates on “real travel time.”

If the known delays in CalFire’s Dispatching system cannot be immediately, completely, and permanently remedied, the District must re-establish its relationship with Heartland Fire Communications as soon as possible since Heartland is the agency that previously served the San Miguel District exceptionally well.

Third, I would change the Agreement to give the District back the ability to evaluate, observe, and identify the level of qualifications of firefighters that the State plans to have work in the San Miguel District.   I would want to know if a new-hire has 5 years of experience working on a fire engine as a paramedic, or have they just completed paramedic training, but lack any on-the-job training.  Currently, the State of California’s Human Resources Department in Sacramento handles the hiring.  This business practice does not afford the District the ability to decide who responds to your 911 Emergency.  Again; a loss of local control.

This District has lost an incredible amount of veteran former San Miguel Firefighters as a result of this Agreement and will continue to lose more.  Contrary to Incumbent Chris Winter’s trivializing this loss as “only seven or eight firefighters”, I can specifically name 11 Fire Captains, 11 Engineers (Drivers), and 8 Firefighter/Paramedics who were long-time First Responders in this District that have left as a direct result of the CalFire Agreement.  All combined, this District lost 545 years of experience in less than 2 years that the Contract has been in place.  Something must be done to retain our highly trained, experienced firefighters before we lose any more.

Since suppression personnel are state employees, can personnel be transferred from the district to any other unit in the state? What are your views on this?

Yes; State personnel can be transferred from the District to any other Unit in the State.  While this is a tremendous benefit to the State, it really is a detriment to the District.  I am deeply concerned about this business practice for a number of reasons.  First, as mentioned previously, the District loses an enormous amount of experience when its former San Miguel firefighters are moved out from the San Miguel District.   Prior to the Agreement, San Miguel District firefighters worked in the District for many, many years before retiring.  Now, State employees from, for example, Riverside, can come work in your fire station for a day, a week, a month… and not be nearly as keenly familiar with the District.  There is a learning curve for anyone coming to work in a new environment.  In the fire service, that includes learning the road ways, (including the intricate roadways of Mt. Helix), learning the San Diego County Paramedic protocols versus what an out-of-County paramedic may have been accustomed to, and, more importantly, learning who your citizens are that frequently need medical assistance.

Given the expected growth of the district, is San Miguel part of the County Fire Authority five year master plan? If not, how is the Department expected to replace units?

Assuming by the term “units”, you are referring to fire apparatus, a search of the CFA Master Plan mentions the San Miguel District only twice.  Once when referring to CalFire’s Monte Vista Station #20 (located within the geographical area of the San Miguel Fire District); and then under Section 8.1.2 New Partnerships, wherein it explains that the SDCFA is currently under discussions with San Miguel with regard to improving regional fire prevention services.  Nowhere in the document could I find discussion of unit/apparatus replacement for the benefit of the District.  

Given that the San Miguel Fire District’s Projected General Fund Revenue for FY2014/2015 is well over $19 million, the District’s Board must save far more responsibly than it has in the past for these anticipated apparatus replacement expenditures.  Had previous Boards been more fiscally responsible, District reserves would have been substantial enough to have ridden out the housing crisis.  Unfortunately, such was not the case and your newly-elected Board and future Boards must do a far better job.  The anticipated total amount of Administrative Fees alone the District will pay to the State over the duration of the current Contract will be over $7 million; a whopping 11.51% Admin Fee of the overall Contract amount of $68,475,565.  I believe that amount to be outrageous and something I would push to change.  Perhaps that $7 million, or at least a large portion of it, would best be directed toward fleet replacement.

Given that firefighters have left for other departments, such as Chula Vista in 2013, how is the department replacing this personnel, and is the department replacing this personnel?

As mentioned previously, under the CalFire Agreement, the District has no control over how it replaces firefighters that have moved on to other agencies.  That aspect of Local Control is now in the hands of the State.  

Although the Agreement with CalFire calls for a set number of firefighters each month, according to a CalFire Chief, that staffing number is always in a state of flux due to personnel out on leave, promoted, or transferred to another Unit within the County or State.  Upon reviewing CalFire’s billing Invoices to the District that I received under a Public Records Act request, it is difficult to make heads or tails out of the true number of firefighters assigned to the District each month due to the extensive redactions to the documents produced.

I do know from speaking directly with CalFire employees, that there have been an unprecedented amount of “Force Backs” that have plagued the District since the Agreement went into effect.  A “Force Back” occurs when there are no firefighters available to relieve an on-duty firefighter from duty after their 72-hour shift at work.  Firefighters have been forced to work 8, 9, sometimes up to 22, 24-hour shifts in a row, some at incredibly busy fire stations, which creates a significant safety concern for both Firefighters and the citizens they serve.  In its article, Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Firefighters and EMS Responders, a direct association was found between lack of sleep and decreased alertness, inability to think clearly, and decrements in job performance for firefighters. (Rpt. For International Fire Chiefs Association, 2007).  

I have been told by two well-experienced and highly respected CalFire Firefighter/Paramedics I personally had the pleasure of working with, that they were so tired from working so many 24-hour shifts in a row, one actually drew up the wrong medication for their patient.   Thankfully, their partner caught the error before the medication was given to the patient.  The other withheld treating a patient because they were not sure they were making the correct decision in treatment.

While I do understand that CalFire does have relief policies in place that allow for crews to bed down for a period of time to rest, closing a fire station down for hours at a time so crews can sleep is NOT the answer.  What if, God forbid, there was a 911 Call for a child drowning two doors down from the fire station where the crews are getting some shut eye?   In my opinion, that is a horrible solution to a very real issue.

If there were enough firefighters permanently assigned to the District, Force Backs would, and should be, rare.  I know from working for the District for 22 years as your First Responder, that Force Backs were a very rare occurrence prior to the CalFire Agreement.   Something must be done to eliminate the Force Back issue long-term.

In April 17, 2014 you received a letter from the State Comptroller regarding a state audit. What are the results of this audit, and what corrective action will be taken to avoid such events in the future?

Perhaps this question is best directed toward the three District incumbents.  I did obtain a copy of the State Controller’s letter which I find quite concerning. 

On October 13, 2014, I called the Executive Office at the State Controller’s Office in my attempt to get an update on the status of the State’s audit of the District’s finances and allegations of its understating revenues, overstating expenditures, and not reporting Capital Projects property, (among other allegations).  At this point, I’m told, the investigation is continuing.  I will be happy to supplement my findings as soon as they are learned. 

Are your CERT, explorer and reserve programs working as they should? If not, what steps would you take to improve them?

The San Miguel Fire District has an active CERT Program; however, as a Candidate, I am not able to accurately assess if it is working as it should be.  I can tell you that I attended the October 8, 2014, Board meeting when students from Steele Canyon High School were recognized for their achievements in being true leaders of the CERT Program at their High School.  I was very proud of their accomplishments and hope they go on to be some of the future firefighters in our District. 

Based upon the District’s website and feedback I’ve received, the Explorer Program is going strong under the leadership of a former San Miguel Fire Captain (now a CalFire employee).  I am confident in the success of the Program since I personally know the Captain running the Program and know him to be an exceptional instructor; undoubtedly committed to helping the Explorers succeed.  The District, and CalFire, are both very fortunate to have such a true leader running the Explorer Program.

Unfortunately, the San Miguel Fire District no longer has a Reserve Program.   What was once an exceptional training opportunity and venue for evaluating potential new-hires, the San Miguel Reserve Program was dismantled just prior to the CalFire Agreement.  The most unfortunate part of losing the Reserve Program was that, over the years, former San Miguel Firefighters, Engineers, Captains, and Chief Officers took tremendous pride and built the San Miguel Reserve Program to be an accredited academy that was recognized Nationally.  Why a prior Board, under the recommendation of the then-Fire Chief, would completely wash out one of the best Reserve Programs and Training Academies this County had to offer those aspirating to be in the fire service, is beyond me; but it did.

Given the current state of the District in that it no longer holds the Local Control necessary to hire its own firefighters, it would not be fiscally responsible to resurrect the San Miguel Reserve Program at this time.

Local control is a hot issue in the East County. What are your views on local control of the department? And would you consider leaving the contract with CAL FIRE once the term of it concludes?

I strongly believe in Local Control and it is my end goal to rebuild the San Miguel Fire District’s financial situation so that it can, once again, stand alone as one of the leading Fire District’s in this County.  Local Control gives the District the final say in its daily operations, how its finances will be managed, how its infrastructure will be maintained, and, more importantly, who your firefighters will be.  Local Control provides a sense of ownership; Community; unity; and pride.  When an outside agency, such as the State, is managing the District’s finances, how can anyone be certain the financial decisions being made are what is best for the Citizens who pay taxes in our District, and not what’s best for the State of California?  I guarantee you, I would much rather spend that $1.2 million in Administrative Fees now going to the State on expenses that would directly benefit our Citizens.

Prior to the Agreement, San Miguel Fire District was one of the most sought-after agencies in the fire service to work for in this County due to its ability to evaluate potential firefighter/paramedics through its Reserve Program and hire the best of the best.  Now, as mentioned previously, the District has absolutely no say in the hiring process of firefighters or who those firefighters will be; those decisions are made by State contract employees.

However, because the Agreement with CalFire exists, we must work with the State in the short-term to ensure the emergency services provided to our Community are as good, or even better, than they were prior to the Agreement. 

I would absolutely consider leaving the Contract with CalFire once the term of it concludes provided the District was on financially solid ground and on track for long-term financial stability.  If the financial crisis that allegedly forced the former Board to sign the Agreement with CalFire were, in fact, true, the individuals responsible for that crisis are none other than prior Board members, including incumbents running for re-election. 

Incumbent Chris Winter has been a District Board member of this District since 1998.  It is Incumbent Chris Winter’s signature on the $68 million Contract with the State/CalFire. 

It is important that this Community know that the CalFire Firefighters Union has not only endorsed Incumbent Winter, it also made a sizeable donation to his political campaign.   Why?  Obviously, the State wants to retain Control of the District and not lose its $68 million Contract. But this begs the question:  Where are Incumbent Winter’s true loyalities?

Why are you running?

I am running for Fire Board for many reason.  First and foremost, I am running because of the commitment and passion I have developed over my 22-year history working for this District as your First Responder.   I have concerns about the level of service currently being provided to our Community and I believe I can help guide the future of this District for the betterment of the Citizens we serve. 

Anyone who knows me knows my passion and commitment to this District runs deep.  I started as a Reserve Firefighter for the District back in 1990.  During my tenure, I developed a pride in the District that I had never experienced before.  My commitment to this Community is strong and I am driven by my passion to help others.  As your First Responder, I worked harder than I ever have in my life on your house fires, I did my best to make you feel better whenever I could, I tried in vain to save your loved ones, and even sat with you and cried when I was unable to do so.  This is my Community and I am running because care.

Watching the District’s downward fall over the past few years has been difficult.  I am running for your Fire Board because I know the history of this District and the shenanigans that have taken place leading up to the Contract with CalFire.  I am troubled by the amount of money that is being directed to the State and away from our District simply to administer the Contract.  I am exactly the person the State does not want sitting on your Fire Board because I have a reputation of finding the truth and fighting for what is right.

Having attended the State’s employee transition meetings leading up to the Contract, it was clear that the State’s primary mission are wildland fires.  To quote a CalFire employee who wished to remain anonymous, “…there is no money in it [wildland] and that’s why these Schedule A contracts [(like the one with the District)] are important; because they [CalFire] can use that money elsewhere for Schedule B [wildland fire] items.” 

I worry that two Incumbents seeking re-election (Chris Winter and Rick Augustine), have been on the District’s Board for 16 and 12 years, respectively.  Given that these were the years leading up to the financial crisis of the District, forcing it to Contract out its core service, one could reasonably conclude that Mr. Winter and Mr. Augustine failed at providing the financial security necessary for the District to weather the tough financial times. 

I am concerned that the wife of a CalFire Chief is suddenly running for your Fire Board.  The public should know that Candidate Cindy Croucher is, in fact, the wife of former San Miguel Interim Fire Chief Gary Croucher, who is now a CalFire Chief.  While employed by San Miguel, Cindy Croucher’s husband was instrumental in steering the District into the hands of CalFire.  It is truly time for some new leadership of your Fire District.

Finally, having a daughter with special needs who suffers debilitating seizures, I know the importance of a timely and highly-proficient emergency response.  I am running for your Fire Board because my daughter deserves the best emergency service possible and so do you.

What are your qualifications/bio highlights?

Biographical Highlights:

One significant life experience that adds to my qualification to serve as your Board member is my own personal, negative experience I had dealing with the District on a personal subdivision project.

Given the fact that a CalFire Union Representative, who is also a CalFire Battalion Chief, maliciously attacked me verbally at a recent District Board meeting (while Board members sat idly by), and Incumbent Chris Winter routinely attempts to discredit me for exercising my judicial rights as an American, I feel compelled to publicly address their attacks.

While it is true I took legal action against the District, it was only because the District, knowing full-well its employees’ egregious acts surrounding my subdivision project intentionally cost me tens of thousands of dollars, failed to take responsibility for those acts.   My claim could have easily been resolved with an apology and a small monetary reimbursement of fees lost as a result of intentional, wrongful acts by District employees. 

In a scathing statement, the California Court of Appeal found my complaint against the District, "...inarguably portrays bureaucracy at its worst..."  (Unpublished, Cal.App. 4th Dist., Div. 1, Case No. D061316, page 12.) 

As your Board member, I will work hard to ensure that no other citizen goes through the same blunders and intentional bureaucratic missteps I endured.  Claims against the District should be decided based upon what is just, and not allow an attorney to churn a legal matter simply for their own profit.

What do you view as the biggest issue(s) facing the district and how do you propose to address them?

The biggest issues I see facing the District are:

1.     Loss of Local Control.  As a quick fix, I propose addressing this issue by:  1) replacing the Contracted position of the top management spot at the District and having that be a San Miguel employee loyal to the District; 2) amending the Contract with the State to give the District back the ability to evaluate, observe or identify the level of qualifications of employees that are being brought to work in the District; 3) amending the Contract to ensure the firefighters working in the District remain in the District and are not forced to work outside the District’s boundaries; 4) amending the Contract to ensure firefighters work schedules provide adequate time off; and 5) amending the Contract to include the directive that no “penalties” (i.e., delays)  be added to Dispatching computer systems.

2.     Level of Service not where it Should be.  By amending the Contract I have identified above under “Loss of Control”, I believe the level of service will naturally rise.  Eliminating the use of seasonal employees and creating incentives to retain experienced firefighters will also help improve level of service. 

3.     District’s Financial Reserves Not Adequately Funded.  I propose addressing this by re-negotiating a lower Administrative  Fee while the Contract with the State is still in place; putting more money in reserve accounts versus spending unwisely; eliminating unnecessary non-suppression personnel positions; evaluating the possibility of refinancing current debt at a lower interest rate.

4.     Lack of Transparency.  Establish a policy where a Board member/appointee reviews all requests for records submitted under the California Public Records Act.  I believe this will accomplish two things:  1) The Board will be aware of items that are of interest to the public; and 2) Provides the Board the opportunity to place items of public interest on the Agenda at its own direction.  I do not believe the District has been complying with the California Public Records Act the way the legislature had intended, and the Board should be providing proper oversight to ensure the District is in compliance.

Who are your major endorsements?

Citizens of San Miguel Committee, Local Fire Chief/Firefighters, and, of course, my Mom.

 

CHRIS WINTER, INCUMBENT

Reply to Candidate Questionnaire for San Miguel Fire Board

 

How has the new agreement with CAL FIRE worked so far? Are there things you would like to change? If they are, what would these be?

The cooperative Services Agreement (CSA) is working well. It has saved the District taxpayers over two million ($2,000,000) since it started in January 2013.  There are things that we have learned for the good and things that I would like to see addressed as we move forward, first on my list would be staffing patterns not associated with a Southern CA incident.  I have always stated that schedule A in our District should not be affected on large incidents that are not in this County.

 

Since suppression personnel are state employees, can personnel be transferred from the district to any other unit in the state? What are your views on this?

Personnel cannot be transferred to other Districts without that person requesting it and the other District/area having a vacancy. We have experienced this type of request and CalFire has granted it.  I think it is good for the employee to work in an area that they choose. 

Given the expected growth of the district, is San Miguel part of the County Fire Authority five year master plan? If not, how is the Department expected to replace units?

I don't think this District is growing. We are looking into annexing some County Service Areas (CSA's) that would fund the relocation of a station and help with the out of balance call volume into the City of El Cajon.  The tax revenue from this would be approximately $350,000 a year.  The annexation would not warrant an additional station.  I have not heard or have any knowledge of San Miguel being part of the San Diego County Fire Authority's five year master plan .  

Given that Fire Fighters have left for other departments, such as Chula Vista in 2013, how is the department replacing this personnel, and is the department replacing this personnel?

We have had several Firefighters leave to go to other departments (approximately 7), and CalFire has replaced them.  The District does not hire State personnel. There was a point that the State-hiring list was depleted, but all vacancies are filled now. 

 

In April 17, 2014 you received a letter from the State Comptroller regarding a state audit. What are the results of this audit, and what corrective action will be taken to avoid such events in the future?

The audit is complete however the final report has not been given to the District from the State Controllers Office. 

Are your CERT, explorer and reserve programs working as they should? If not, what steps would you take to improve them?

We explorers but we no longer have reserves because of our CSA with CalFire. We are training CERT members even at the high school level.  This program is the only one of it's kind in San Diego County.  We will evaluate it and possibly use it as a guide for the entire region once completed. 

Local control is a hot issue in the East County. What are your views on local control of the department? And would you consider leaving the contract with CAL FIRE once the term of it concludes?

Local control has always been a priority for us.  We have local control, not to the extent we did prior to the CSA with CalFire, but CalFire is a great organization that has worked with us on every issue brought to them. We get several no cost benefits by being in the CSA, i.e. added staffing in high fire weather patterns, CalFire responses in the District in addition our regular response, this includes engines, personnel, even aircraft.  I am not in favor or leaving the CalFire CSA without large funding increases in our property tax revenue.  

Why are you running?

I am running to listen to the residents of the entire District and make sure they have the best responses to all of their emergencies as well as non-emergency calls for service, coupled with prevention and education. 

What are your qualifications/bio highlights?

 I am a retired 30 year veteran of the fire service, I have a BS degree in Business Management, an AS degree in Fire Science and I am a State certified Paramedic.  

What do you view as the biggest issue(s) facing the district and how do you propose to address them?

The biggest District issue is fiscal. We need to fund our reserve funds to levels that would ensure this Districts sustainability through another economy disaster like in 2008.  

Who are your major endorsements?I am proud to be endorsed by Senator Joel Anderson, San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, Tribal Chairman, Daniel J. Tucker of The Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, CalFire local 2881 and The San Diego Republican Party.

 

 

JIM EK, FIRE CAPTAIN, CHALLENGER

Reply to Candidate Questionnaire for San Miguel Fire Board

 

How has the new agreement with CalFire worked so far? Are there things you would like to change?If there are, what would these be?

I don’t feel that the contract has benefited the citizens of the district. We have lost our local control. We no longer hire our own firefighters. The testing and promotional practices are not in line with other departments in the county. This is all now handled by the state of CA. Firefighters who are not experienced in the urban setting, not familiar with the district and not trained on our equipment, are working on our San Miguel apparatus. Firefighter/paramedics from outside the county, who lack the San Diego EMS protocol certification, are brought here to fill in for the shortage of firefighter/paramedics. This shortage is the result of the exodus of 7 San Miguel firefighter/paramedics to other departments in the county shortly after the contract went in to effect. Four more firefighter/paramedics could be leaving within the next few months, further depleting the number of qualified personnel to fill those openings. Because of this deficit,  firefighters are “forced back” to work excessive additional shifts. This leads to firefighters being on duty up to 6 or 7 straight 24 hour shifts. This creates stressed, overworked crews that can result in injuries, accidents, unsafe practices and lack of proper decision making, due to fatigue.  

Also, our 24 hour Battalion Chief coverage is not the same as prior to the contract. Battalion Chiefs are allowed to respond from home at night(even if they live in North County) instead of from a station located in the center of the district. This was not acceptable protocol before the contract. 

San Miguel no longer participates in joint training with neighboring agencies. Prior to the contract, San Miguel was an active member of Heartland Fire Training Authority. San Miguel still pays $79,000 a year to be a member, but it has rarely been utilized by engine companies in the past two years. These are just a few of the things that I would like to see rectified.

Since suppression personnel are state employees, can personnel be transferred from the district to any other unit in the state? What are you views on this?

It is my understanding that firefighters can put in for transfers. In fact, one San Miguel Captain transferred up to the Sierra Mountain area. Because of this option, we have lost some of our best firefighters, engineers, and captains. In conversation with many of the former San Miguel personnel that have transferred to other areas, the main impetus seemed to be avoiding “force backs”. Overall, transfers and loss of vital, talented personnel have resulted in less area familiarization in those that serve our local district. This impacts the effectiveness and speed of our emergency response service.

Given the expected growth of the district, is San Miguel part of the County Fire Authority five year master plan? If not, how is the department expected to replace units?

In all honesty, I will need to do more research to answer this question. In speaking with many former fire chiefs within San Diego County, I believe that San Miguel Fire District is part of the County plan. I feel that is why there was such a push by the administration to enter into the agreement with CalFire.

Given that Fire Fighters have left for other departments, such as Chula Vista in 2013, how is the department replacing this personnel, and is the department replacing personnel?

First of all, you cannot easily replace the experienced firefighter/paramedics that left the department. The 7 firefighter/paramedics that we lost were the future leaders of the San Miguel Fire District. Some had up to 12 years of service with San Miguel. Like I stated earlier, San Miguel could be losing 4 more of our best firefighters to neighboring agencies soon.This will lead to more “force backs.” San Miguel never experienced this issue prior to the contract. San Miguel was a sought after department for employment by firefighters throughout Southern California.  Prior to the contract, San Miguel had only lost 3 firefighters to other departments in the last 25 years. All 3 moved to departments out of the state to be closer to family. Sadly for the citizens of this district, this is no longer the case. I’ve been told by a CalFire Chief that the state just can’t hire enough qualified firefighter/paramedics to fill the openings in San Miguel.

In April 2014 you received a letter from the State Controller regarding a state audit. What are the results of this audit and what corrective action will be taken to avoid such events in the future?

I have been unable to find out if the investigation is complete. This question should be answered by the present board members.

Are your CERT, explorer and reserve programs working as they should? If not, what steps would you take to improve them?

The Explorer and CERT programs are still in place. The Explorer Program is still run by a San Miguel Captain. I would like to see the firefighters more involved with the CERT program and in the community as a whole. We have lost community involvement. Firefighters transferring in and out of the district have no ownership or ties to the district.                                                 

Sadly, the San Miguel Reserve Program was one of the casualties of the CalFire contract. The San Miguel Reserve Program was one of the best in San Diego County. There were always many more qualified applicants than positions available in the program. Many of the full time San Miguel firefighters started in the reserve program, gaining valuable training and experience. Again, this was another sought after, successful program run by San Miguel that has since been eliminated with the contract.

Local control is a hot issue in the East County. What are your views on local control of the department? And would you consider leaving the contract with CalFire once the term of it concludes.

Local control in very important to operating a quality, multi-faceted, highly trained, and motivated fire department. We are at the mercy of a large state run agency. If some of the local control issues like hiring, promoting, “force backs,” and training cannot be remedied, then leaving the contract is an option that may need to be considered.

Why are you running?

In the past two years, I have observed a decline in the fire and EMS service delivered to the citizens of the San Miguel Fire District. I understand that San Miguel Fire District, like all districts and cities in the county, experienced difficult financial times during the recession. I feel that the board allowed spending to stay the same or even increase, while revenues were declining. San Miguel Fire District is the only district in the county that was forced to contract out for service. Some examples of their unnecessary spending include one million dollars of district funds as well as $650,000 of grant funds spent on a new training facility that is now just a large unusable concrete slab. Furthermore, this facility would require an additional 2.5 million dollars to complete for usage. There was also a poorly managed maintenance facility that has cost the district funds to correct. 

Wasteful spending also included benefits to the board members. They enjoyed full medical and dental insurance for themselves and their families. Some took cash in lieu of insurance from their full time employer because of this benefit. This benefit cost the district over $100,000 annually. Each board member also received an annual wellness physical costing $1000 per member. These are a few of the benefits the board members enjoyed in addition to the $175 - $195 stipend received for attending a meeting. 

The board kept a Public Information Officer on staff while other like-sized departments utilized chief officers to fill that position. At that time, San Miguel had one of the highest, if not the highest paid Fire Chief in the county. These were just a few of the areas that the San Miguel Fire Board chose to spend our tax dollars while on while cutting core fire and EMS services during recessionary times.

In the years leading up to the contract in 2013, the firefighters, those on the front lines that actually provide the service to the district, took a 22% decrease in pay and benefits. In addition, since becoming CalFire employees, firefighters are required to work 28% more to earn the same salary they were earning before the contract (from a 56 hour to a 72 hour work week). Now you can see why so many valuable, experienced firefighters have fled the district since the contract.

If elected, I will work to improve service by bringing focus back to the basic fundamentals that build a strong fire department. These include hiring quality firefighter/paramedics, providing comprehensive training to those individuals, keeping our firefighters in this district for their whole career, and building strong leaders within our ranks to take the department into the future. After all, firefighters on the engines responding to all 911 calls is the primary focus of a local fire department. 

What are your qualifications/bio highlights?

As a San Diego native, my wife and I have called East County our home for over 30 years. We have raised three daughters and just recently became grandparents. I have enjoyed a 31 year career  as a firefighter, engineer and a captain with the Lemon Grove Fire Department. In that time I have developed leadership skills as a training captain and safety equipment officer, and have sat on many department committees through the years. I’ve dedicated my career to providing the best public safety service to the citizens of my city as well as the surrounding jurisdictions we serve. This includes not only keeping my skills sharp, but making sure the firefighters on my engine are competent in all facets of the dynamic fire and EMS world.

With my three decades of fire service experience, I have first hand knowledge of what comprises quality fire and EMS service. With experience, fresh perspective and dedication to the cause, I know I can bring about the positive change on the San Miguel Fire District Board needed to better serve the community.

 

10.What do you view as the biggest issue(s) facing the district and how do you propose to address them?

Lack of local control, a comprehensive training program, and firefighter retention, as well as over worked firefighters, are just a few issues that need attention.  

CalFire is a fine organization, but I feel their main mission and expertise is in the wild land or rural firefighting area, not in the urban setting. In San Diego County, CalFire lacks the personnel to effectively staff engine and truck companies and adequately respond to the wide variety of emergencies within the San Miguel District. I don’t place blame on the current firefighters for the shortcomings we are experiencing as a community, as they are operating within the policies and guidelines of the CalFire system.

If elected I would like to work with CalFire to address and rectify the issues I’ve talked about here. If those changes aren’t able to be made, we may need to look at other options for fire and EMS service for the San Miguel citizens. Of course, this would be dictated by the financial stability of the district. 

 

11. Who are your major endorsements?

The Citizens of San Miguel“ and retired East County Fire Chiefs, Jon Torchia and Tim Laff.

 

 

Comments

San Miguel Fire

How is it that Cindy Croucher can even be on the Fire Board. With her husband being the Chief isn't that a conflict of interest? Will she get to vote on his contract? Or how about his pay raise? I hope the voters won't be so blind to approve this.

"Savings" is not the Same as "Under Budget"

Chris Winter wrote: The CSA "...has saved the District taxpayers over two million ($2,000,000)..." The fact is, the District intentionally "over budgeted" the anticipated cost of the Contract and, therefore, the amount that Mr. Winter's alleges is a "savings" is in reality an "under budgeted" amount. He knows this, but continues to use the term "saved" as a play on words to mislead the public during his campaign. If there truly were a "savings", I have two questions for Mr. Winter: 1) Can the citizens of the District expect to get a refund on their taxes since the Contract allegedly "saved" the taxpayers over $2 million? But more importantly, if the District truly "saved" over $2 million because of the CSA: 2) Why did you make 3 motions at the May 14, 2014 Board meeting and vote to RAISE the taxes in the Crest and Bostonia Communities for FY2014/2015? (Prop E taxes up 3%; Bostona Area Special Benefit Tax up 1.6%; Special Benefit Tax for Paramedic/Firefighter Engines up 1.6%.) The public deserves the truth.

budget amounts

All I know is that if you sat in the same meeting that I did in Crest, the Board explained that the Crest and Bostonia areas get more than they pay for by over $500.000 a year. As I understood it, is in direct relation to the number of houses ( density) or the amount of property tax coming from the areas you question. I would love to pay for a Ford and drive a Mercedes but that is just not reality. The benefit tax was approved by over 76% ,as I remember and now a choice few are not liking it. The majority has spoken, until those areas pay their own way I think it is incumbent of the Board ( no matter of who is on it) to raise the benefit tax until such a time that the tax covers the benefit they so enjoy. This is not a pleasant answer but as understand the facts, it is reality.

Well.....

...a familiar story to those of us in the Real East County now being run by the San Diego County Fire Authority, whose motto is.. We blow smoke up your ( fill in the blank ). Your current board and past fire chief ran a very richly funded fire department broke. NON of them should be reelected! Going with Cal Fire was a very stupid mistake. You now have NO local control and any you  may think you have is an illusion.

And yes, you lost a bunch of your experienced fire fighters and, no you will never get them back. All the good ones are now Cal Fire employees. One of your old Chief's is now the Battalion Chief for the Real East County. ( That's east of Alpine for the geography limited press in this County.)

The real bad news is the next step is being absorbed into the San Diego County Fire Authority. And no, it's not a typo, there is NO San Diego County FIRE DEPARTMENT.

Resistance is futile.