By Miriam Raftery
“This is a shame and an embarrassment.” – La Mesa Councilman David Allen, former San Miguel Firefighter
“These are wickedly difficult decisions…decisions no fire chief wants to have to make.” – Chief August Ghio
Updated October 28, 2011; originally published October 27, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – Over objections of an overflow crowd of more than 100 community members and firefighters, the San Miguel Fire (SMF) District board voted last night to leave only a two-man medical crew at its rural Dehesa station.
The unused brush rig would be moved to another station that is fully staffed, leaving the Dehesa station with an unmanned fire engine. The District concedes this will increase response times for residential and brush fires, leading residents and firefighting experts to voice grave concerns over dangers to public safety. One paramedic and one emergency medical technician (EMT) will remain assigned to the station.
The board also voted for a proposal that imposes painful cuts on firefighters who have already had take-home salaries slashed by 14 percent before the current negotiation impasse. New cuts include eliminating holiday pay and sick leave, and creating a two-tier system for medical benefits, making employees pay more for coverage, and bringing in temporary emergency workers to avoid paying overtime. In addition, three firefighting positions lost through attrition will not be filled.
The District voted for $1.2 million in total cuts, claiming a budget shortfall of $1.5 million despite the fact that it also ear-marked $1.3 million to deposit in its reserve fund this fiscal year. Board members Larry Jackman, Dave Rickards, Chris Winters and Rick Augustine voted in favor, while members Criss Brainard and Karrie Johnston voted no. (Jeff Nelson was absent; Augustine voted via conference call while recuperating from surgery.)
Board members drew heated criticism from members of the public and firefighters’ representatives. Many wanted the District to reduce this year’s deposit into a reserve fund. Others asked why residents and firefighters are being burned instead of taking alternative steps to cut costs or raise revenues.
Jason Hulse, a retired paramedic, lives on Dehesa Road. He voiced fear over the impact of the decision. “Mine is the last house in the District, he told the board. “My wife has had at least ten allergic reactions…these are life-threatening.” He called the proposal “a dangerous disservice.”
Linda Larsen, a resident, chastised the board for “double dipping at the public trough” by taking cash in lieu of medical benefits when most have benefits through other jobs. She wants to see Chief August Ghio take a pay cut off his $174,500 salary. She also proposed reducing the part-time board from seven to five members and cutting some administrative staff. “You guys have taken and taken and taken from firefighters. They’re fighting to save their homes and in some cases, their marriages,” she said. “For God’s sake, keep the firefighters.”
She also criticized the district for utilizing grant funds, now spent, to build a training center and voiced concern over how future costs would be covered. (Public information officer Leonard Villareal later told ECM that no District funds would be used for completion of the training facility.)
La Mesa Councilman David Allan, a former San Miguel firefighter, leveled harsh criticism at the district for its proposal to leave Dehesa with only two paramedics. “It blows me away,” he said. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves for even thinking of this. Do we want to be the first in San Diego County to go down to two persons on a rig? That’s a shame and an embarrassment.” He added that La Mesa’s Council manages the city with just a five-person board.
Jim Lindgren, a homeowner, said he wants “a fire truck” not just a two-man paramedic crew. He voiced concern over how two paramedics could perform CPR and drive without risking an accident or jeopardizing patient safety. He worried that people will move out of the community as a result of losing fire protection. “What I expect my taxes to pay for is schools, firemen and police, he said.
Another homeowner voiced concern that homeowners could face insurance rate hikes or lose their fire insurance with no fire engine to service their neighborhoods. “We’re paying for more than this on our taxes and we deserve more,” he said, drawing applause.
Kim Raddatz, a former fire chief in Coronado and Salinas, objected to the lack of notice to area residents before last night’s vote. He said he received a mailing “this afternoon” and criticized the board for allowing “no community involvement.” Raddatz wanted to know if the District had looked at whether mitigation fees are adequate and whether sufficient fees are being charged for fire inspections.
Raddatz warned that Dehesa residents losing their engine and brush truck will have to rely on Engine 8 in El Cajon—“probably the busiest in East county” through a mutual aid agreement. “After that is station 19, also very busy.” He voiced firefighters’ concerns over threats to public safety, adding, “When that phone rings or that alarm sounds, we are somebody’s only hope.”
Dennis Buzzell noted that the District already cut nine positions three years ago and said eliminating an engine and brush rig could result in “a fire that could now jump to hundreds of acres, with threats to lives and property.”
Tom Paden, an SMF engineer, said the District has “asked us to take pay cut after pay cut.” He noted that the District has $3 million in its reserves and that over the past 10 years, that averages out to deposits of $300,000 a year—and plans to up that to $1.3 million this year.
“You can’t have a shortfall if you’re putting that much into reserves,” he said.
Bryce Westfall thanked firefighters for saving his home, then asked what baseline the District used to establish its reserve contribution. “Are you just pulling that out of thin air?” he asked. He then said he thinks people could stand “a few cents a day” or more for an assessment.
The District previously spent $50,000 to put a measure on the ballot that would have created a $52 per year (or about a dollar a week on average) fire parcel tax to prevent shutting down an engine serving the Mount Helix area. But voters defeated that proposal by roughly a 70 percent margin, and that engine was taken out of service.
“We heard the public say `Do the best with what you’ve got,’” Chief Ghio said at last night’s meeting, insisting that the District has done its est. He called the decisions “wickedly difficult,”adding,”These are decisions no Fire Chief wants to have to make.”
Ghio thanked the public, said there were “misconceptions” presented but declined to clarify what those were in this meeting. He said the District projects a $1.5 million deficit due to $947,000 in increased expenses and a three-year decline in property taxes of $1.35 million. Healthcare cost rose nearly $2 million last year and the District has had more overtime than usual.
He said the District has cut its costs by $4.5 million in the past four years. He also said the District had no reserves when he first joined and that “you have to have some cash in the bank for when you hit your cap.” An apparatus reserve fund has $1.7 million and the district needs equipment including a replacement ladder truck totaling around $1.9 milllion, according to Ghio.
Ghio acknowledged that eliminating engines “is going to affect response time. It could be two to four minutes more, or longer, to get water on a fire.” He said the District asked Cal-Fire to cover the area, but Cal-Fire declined.
Joey Sanchez, chief negotiator for the District outlined what he called the “last and best” proposal for labor, which included eliminating fire protection for Dehesa and leaving just two medical personnel on a rig. Some also voiced concerns that a two-man crew would be unable to perform some emergency medical procedures.
The District’s plan eliminates holiday pay for firefighters. It also eliminates sick leave and instead creates a “leave bank” with a lower accrual rate and limits on when leaves may be taken. Medical benefits will also be impacted under a new two-tier system that will freeze rate and cap contributions for those hired after November 1, 2011. Employees could also be forced to pay the current Kaiser HMO rates plus 50 percent of future increases in premiums. The District also will require employees absent for 90 days to undergo a physical exam to prove they are fit to serve.
Stuart Adams, attorney for the San Miguel Firefighters Association, thanked community members for showing “that you understand why we have not reached a deal with them [the District.]” He noted that firefighters in recent years have already had their take-home pay cut by 14%. “That’s $1,000 a month in some households,” he said, adding that firefighters are also paying the max on pension contributions allowed by law.
This year, the firefighters’ union agreed to more concessions—but the union wants a portion of the $1.3 million earmarked for deposit into reserves to be used for debts instead. Adams also accused the district of hiding an increase in property tax revenues from the county. “That didn’t show up in their budget,” he said.
Adams also faulted the District for wanting to upgrade its fleet by buying a new fire truck next year. “When times are tough, you stop buying things,” he said, receiving applause from the crowd. He accused the District of putting “a $1.3 million gun to our head” and told residents present, “Firefighters do not want to cut the services in your neighborhood.” In Dehesa, he said, “Those people will be completely without fire services all the time, every shift, every day.”
The union’s attorney said the District insisted service cuts were necessary. So the union proposed that instead of eliminating all fire protection for Dehesa, the District should instead brown out one engine a third of the time or implement a rolling blackout to “spread it around the district.” That plan was rejected, however.
The union reluctantly accepted the need for some temporary hires to fill an unusually high number of vacancies due to injured firefighters. But Adams claimed, “The District wants to say `Use ‘em anytime, anywhere. They could even be the lead paramedic with nobody watching them.”
He gestured to an injured firefighter in the room. “This young man needs a walker. He was injured on duty.” He faulted the District for eliminating sick leave, noting that some injured workers can wind up “in limbo” while their sick leave “gets burned quickly if you’ve ever ended up like this.” He also suggested that the District’s plan for blended leaves may be illegal, since sick leave belongs to an employee who leaves while vacation time does not. He said the union proposed a sick leave incentive plan similar to one in place for fire chiefs.
Alan Laatsch, president of San Miguel Firefighters, displayed results of a study on crew sizes conducted by the National Institution of Standards and Testing (www.nist.gov). The study found four- or five-man crews were 25-35 percent faster on arrival time, spacing between responses, and slowing growth of a fire. “Two and three person crews were unable to meet this requirement for any standard,” he said. “A three-man crew is already inadequate. Don’t let the Chief hoodwink you with response times,” he added, noting that a rescue crew can’t fight a fire without water. A similar study by San Diego State University found that “anything less than three-person crew on a wildland apparatus is inadequate,” Laatsch added.
The union leader further faulted the District for hurting retirees who “put in their time.” “All the District wants to pay is the PERS minimum - $108 a month,” he said, adding that additional costs will come out of the pockets of retirees on fixed incomes.
He also took a shot at board members who did reduce their compensation per meeting, then “increased their number of meetings.” Later he told the board, “Not once did I see anything in any of your proposals…to try to offset the money taken out of our pockets…Keep what you have in savings; just don’t add anymore at the expense of us.”
Laatsch also faulted the District for not campaigning harder to convince voters of the need for a fire fee. “They thought it was a shell game….We were told Engine 15 was temporarily browned out; Chief Ghio was the first in San Diego County to close a station to brown out.” He urged the board, “Stop the insanity!”
He accused the District of acting in a heartless manner. “The human element is being thrown out,” he said, citing eliminating holiday pay as an example. “That makes up for being away from loved ones while working on holidays, fighting fires,” he said. “They can’t see their children open presents on Christmas day…That’s just downright mean.” The audience applauded again.
Firefighters do currently get partial pay on certain holidays, even if they don't work. They can earn several times their regular pay for working on holidays, and it's the latter that the District seeks to remove.
Attorney Adams wants the District to show some heart. “We want the human element addressed. We’re willing to share sacrifice.”
Gehrig Browning, an SMF Captain, said he took a drop in pay when he began working for the District 20 years ago. “But there was a bonus,” he recalled. “This job came with a family…we’d weather storms and look out for each other.” He called the District’s proposal “irresponsible and offensive” and said, “families are being destroyed by double-dipping and greed. You have the power to change to am ore positive course and lead…This puts people in peril and risks lives.”
He concluded, “My peers and the people of this District deserve better. We deserve to be treated fairly,” drawing cheers from the audience.
San Miguel’s firefighters have traditionally been among the most highly paid in the county, though recent years have seen pay and benefits reduced--and impacts are taking their toll, many suggested.
One firefighter commented, “It isn’t right for our kids to ask if we can afford o send them to college, or if we can afford to send them to dance or soccer.” He noted that successful CEOs such as those heading up Google and Qualcomm “always say `We’d be nowhere without a happy, healthy workforce. When is the last time you asked yourself if you have a happy, healthy workforce?”
Another firefighter said that “a two-man rescue squad is like sending a soldier on the front lines in Iraq without a gun.”
Don Upton is a firefighter-paramedic who testified that he was injured on the job at a San Miguel Fire station when due to “lack of maintenance, a collapsed gate fell on me.” He has undergone three surgeries and is awaiting a cadaver before he can have his knee fixed and hopefully return to work. “I have three months left before I’m forced to retire,” he said, voicing fear over his future under the District’s plan. “Please,” he implored the board, “think about it before you make a decision to drive the nail into my coffin.”
Steve Butcher, a retired SMF employee, said he worked for Campo Fire, which was considered an under-funded district yet still managed to keep four men on an engine plus a two-man rescue crew, average four firefighters per 1,000 in the population. By contrast, the SMF District has three firefighters per 1,000 population and is already undermanned. “It’s very scary,” he said. He urged the District to stop saving for a rainy day with its reserve fund, adding, “Now is a rainy day. It’s pouring.”
The District’s board, however, threw cold water on hopes that it would listen to those present, voting to adopt its plan without amendment.
“The San Miguel Fire Board chose not to listen to the members of the public or firefighters and voted to impose and implement their plan negatively impacting the public and firefighters,” Captain Browning told ECM following the decision. “As your firefighters, we will continue to do our best despite the dangerous decisions of this Board.” But he concluded, “Our communities deserve than what this Board is doing.”
At a community meeting held October 27, Ghio offered some hope to residents in Dehesa, revealing that the District is negotiating with Sycuan. The tribe has indicated it may be willing to provide staffing to man the Dehesa engine--provided the San Miguel Firefighters union will agree. The District also seeks community volunteers to assist with forming a committee on additional potential solutions, including the possibility of fundraising events or residents forming a special assessment district.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the plan would eliminate two engines from the Dehesa station. In fact it moves a brush engine from Dehesa to a manned station and leaves an unmanned brush rig at the Dehesa station, in addition to the two paramedics.Dehesa residents will be dependent on mutual aid from other stations farther away for fire protection.