Budget cuts spread Fresno Fire Department thin; can Measure G help?

The Fresno BeeMay 25, 2013 

Alarm bells are ringing for the Fresno Fire Department.

Will Measure G answer the call? Or does the department need even more help?

City officials say daily firefighter staffing levels haven't been this low since 1955. The era of two-company firehouses is gone for now. Most firetrucks don't have the optimum number of firefighters.

It gets worse.

The Fresno of 60 years ago had one firefighter per 1,691 residents; today it's one per 7,537. The department answered nearly 36,000 calls for service last year, up about 8% in two years. Firefighting companies are stretched so thin that response times to fires with a full force are far below the department goal.

"Our situation is very tenuous," Chief Rob Brown says. "We've done incredible things with the resources we have, but at some point our luck will run out and the community's luck will run out. We'll lose a community member or we'll lose a firefighter.

"Then the Monday morning quarterbacking will start: 'Why did that happen?' "

Mayor Ashley Swearengin sees trouble ahead, as well.

"Our fire department and our firefighters are keeping our city safe," Swearengin says. "But our staffing levels are dangerously low. I'm very concerned about them dropping any further."

The solution is simple -- more money. That's where things get complicated.

City Hall is broke. Swearengin has been fighting budget woes since she took office in January 2009. She expects to make ends meet in the fiscal year ending June 30 but is looking at a budget gap next year of perhaps $6 million.

The Fire Department's share of the general fund (money spent at the city's discretion) has been unchanged in the last two years at about $43 million annually.

But some costs, such as worker's compensation, are up. Firefighter attrition has helped balance the books. This year's budget has 309 sworn positions, down from 340 in 2011's budget. Fewer than 300 positions are currently filled.

Swearengin wants more money to fix the department. She's pursuing a two-pronged strategy that might work -- or might destroy City Hall's fragile morale.

Swearengin wants to outsource the city's home trash service to Mid Valley Disposal in exchange for millions in budget-fixing franchise fees. Several unions are fighting the effort. The firefighters' union is taking a neutral stance.

Voters go to the polls on June 4 to decide Measure G: Should the outsourcing ordinance be adopted?

Two months after the vote, the firefighters' contract expires. Talks have started. Swearengin has said for months that a long-term budget fix requires wage/benefit concessions from all city unions.

The firefighters union made high-profile concessions in Swearengin's first term. Its silence on Measure G speaks volumes on Swearengin's behalf. Its leaders echo the concern of Swearengin and Brown for the department's future.

The firefighters aren't in the mood for more give-backs. The chief isn't in the mood for more departmental cuts. The mayor isn't in the mood to alienate a potential union ally as the Measure G vote nears, June budget hearings loom and a department pivotal to Fresno's well-being teeters on the edge of serious decline.

Firefighters union president Kirk Wanless sums up: "Our residents should be concerned about where this fire department is heading."

Two-company houses high on wish list

The Fresno Fire Department, Brown says, has become the people's tool box.

Flames in the kitchen? Call the Fire Department. Grandma fell? Call the Fire Department. A foul chemical spilled on the street? Call the Fire Department.

"We've become the go-to community service," Brown says.

The chief says there's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to standards for a modern fire department. But, he adds, things aren't right in Fresno.

The big worries: Staffing per rig and rigs per station.

Fresno's department has 23 stations, not including firefighters focused just on Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

Three stations are part of a contract with the North Central Fire Protection District. Another station is a contractual deal with the Fig Garden Fire Protection District.

The Fig Garden station answers calls within the city limits. That means Fresno has 20 stations providing service to residents.

The two main pieces of firefighting equipment are the engine (hose and pumps) and the ladder truck (a bigger vehicle with a ladder extending 100 feet or more).

A rig might have a company of three: a captain in command, an engineer to drive and a firefighter (this is a specific job description -- they're all firefighters in reality). Sometimes another firefighter is added for a four-person company.

The department in 2012 fought nearly 200 fires a month, up 7% from 2010. And more than half of the department's total service calls were rescue and medical emergencies.

Fresno's department has many challenges, Brown says. The training staff is too small. So, too, is the maintenance staff. As happened recently, companies get so busy fighting simultaneous fires that the department must temporarily stop responding to medical calls.

The department's goal is to have an effective firefighting force (15 firefighters) on the scene of a residential fire within eight minutes of a call at least 90% of the time. According to department figures, the goal is met just 62% of the time.

But it's the complex calculus of engines, trucks, companies and geography among Fresno's 20 stations that most worries Swearengin and Brown.

The department on any given day has 67 firefighters on duty. There were 83 just a few years ago. Blame the Great Recession, Swearengin and Brown say.

There are 16 engines and four trucks among the 20 stations. The math is simple -- one rig per station. Sixteen stations have only an engine, four stations only a truck.

The math is nearly as simple for the 67 on-duty firefighters. Thirteen stations have a three-person company, seven a four-person company.

In other words, all stations are one-company houses and two-thirds have three-person staffing.

That's not good in a city of more than 110 square miles, Brown says. His goal is for each rig to have four-person staffing (captain, engineer, two firefighters) and five or six stations upgraded to two-company houses (engine and truck together).

Brown says common sense as well as scientific research supports him.

He says four-person companies are considerably more efficient at fighting fires than those with three.

Then there is the "two-in, two-out" industry standard -- two firefighters stationed on the outside of a structure before the minimum two firefighters are sent inside.

In theory, Brown says, a three-person company on the first engine at a fire must wait for a truck or another engine. In practice, he adds, Fresno firefighters don't wait if lives are threatened.

Still, Brown says, this situation is trouble waiting to happen.

Common sense also explains the value of two-company houses, Brown says.

Ladder trucks in a city full of strip malls and big box stores like Fresno are vital. The ladders enable firefighters to get high above a fire and direct water on huge roofs prone to collapse.

An engine and a truck leaving together will arrive together, Brown says. Precious time is saved. Each station doesn't need two rigs, he adds, but there used to be a handful and now there are none.

One-company stations and weak staffing levels are potential "failure points," Brown says. "It pains me to say this, but it seems like it always takes a tragedy before people rally to make things right."

Politics key to Fresno Fire improvements

None of this is a mystery to city officials.

"I haven't meet anybody who doesn't care about public safety," says Brown, who's been on the job for about a year. "The problem is: How do we fix our city's fragile economy?"

That won't happen overnight. In the meantime, things are moving on several fronts.

Wanless, the fire union president, says his members are tired of playing second fiddle at City Hall and in the public eye to the powerful police union. The state of the Fire Department "is the unspoken tragedy of the recession," he says.

The union is sponsoring the showing of a documentary on the Detroit Fire Department titled "Burn" on Friday at the Tower Theatre. One of the film's executive producers is actor Denis Leary. Wanless says proceeds will go to Leary's foundation that supports firefighters.

Detroit's fire department has troubles equal to those plaguing the city it serves, Wanless said. Money is tight, while demands on firefighters grow. The documentary "is a cautionary tale for what has happened here locally," he says.

Swearengin wants Measure G to pass so the general fund will get Mid Valley's $1.5 million signing bonus and an estimated $2.5 million a year in franchise fees.

City Hall in past budget fixes thought about closing stations. The outcry was immediate. That's why each station has just one engine or truck -- city officials cut back on rigs but decided against a consolidation that would leave neighborhood firehouses with empty bays.

"If Measure G doesn't pass, then there will be a decision point for me in what I recommend to the City Council," Swearengin says. "Do we drop firehouses or do we look at a (declaration of) fiscal emergency? When you look at the data, I'm being persuaded more and more that it would not be good for our community to drop any further in police and fire."

A declaration of fiscal emergency is a key step on the road to bankruptcy.

Brown already knows what he'll say if City Manager Mark Scott comes to department headquarters the day after a failed Measure G.

"If he says we have to reduce services, well, we're at the point where reducing services means closing fire stations," Brown says. "We have no further opportunity to cut."

Council Member Oliver Baines, a trash outsourcing opponent, says Measure G supporters aren't taking their logic far enough.

"Our public safety is in a crisis," Baines says. "But it's broader than that. Every service we offer is in a crisis. City leaders need to be moving in the direction of how we get all of our city services back to health. That's a discussion we're not having."

Baines says Mid Valley's relatively modest franchise fees aren't nearly enough to fill the budget hole or justify the deal's risks.

Baines' solution: Reject Measure G, then gather city leaders for serious talks about service levels and costs.

With that game plan in hand, Baines, says, "we go to the citizens and say, 'This is what we need and this is what it costs.' "

That's too much pie-in-the-sky for Swearengin. The Fire Department crisis is here now, she says.

If Measure G fails and there are more cuts, Swearengin says, "somebody's going to get hurt."

Measure G

--What: Special city of Fresno election to decide whether the residential trash outsourcing ordinance should be adopted

--Tuesday: Last day to file an application for a vote-by-mail ballot

--June 4: Election day

--More information: fblinks.com/measureg or (559) 600-VOTE

--City Beat: Read much more about Measure G in George Hostetter's blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat

If you go

--What: Screening of "Burn," a story of the Detroit Fire Department

--When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

--Where: Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave., Fresno

--Details: detroitfirefilm.org/events

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com.

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