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 Firefighters have also withdrawn support from off-duty support of Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training activities.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.”