Letter: The straight facts about fire protection and the CDF

Letter to the editor

Posted by on Mon, November 6, 2006

by Bruce MacKimmie

Bruce MacKimmie is a Point Montara Fire Protection District director.

The debate about Coastside fire protection has gotten more than a little out of hand. The knives are out, literally – after one public meeting, the acting fire chief had two of his tires slashed. It’s time for some calm perspective on the decisions we’re making about fire services in our remarkably safe community.

You’ve elected eight of your neighbors to represent you on the Boards of the Half Moon Bay Fire Protection District and the Point Montara Fire Protection District. This is a disparate group of people with widely varying views on just about everything – you’d have a tough time getting a majority vote from this group on whether the sky is blue.

But six of these eight elected directors have, after examining all the legal, financial and managerial issues, reached the same painful conclusion – that the HMBFPD is no longer a viable alternative for delivering fire protection to the Coastside. We’ve voted to bring in the California Department of Forestry to manage our fire protection. (We chose CDF over a competing bid from the City of San Mateo Fire Department because the CDF bid was dramatically lower.)

You’ve heard and read a lot of hysterical untruths about this situation – most recently in a guest column in the Review by a Half Moon Bay police officer, who (amidst a string of insults directed at the Boards) remarkably predicted that all 29 firefighters employed by the two districts will immediately resign. Let me try to set the record straight by answering some of the questions I’ve been getting.

Will we still have local control of our fire protection? Absolutely. Your elected board members will still control the purse strings, and the level of fire protection service provided to the community and therefore all the crucial decisions about our coverage will still be made by us. And this function will be centralized when the HMBFPD and the PMFPD are consolidated into the new Coastside Fire Protection District.

Will firefighters lose their jobs? Absolutely not. Not one current firefighter will be laid off.

Is it true the firefighters will have to work more for the same compensation? Partly. They’ll have to work 12 days a month, up from the current ten days, for the same salary. But their benefits, particularly retirement benefits, will improve dramatically. They’ll now be able to retire at 3% at age 50, instead of age 55. And CDF offers a benefit that is vanishing from local fire departments – lifetime medical coverage. The cities can’t afford this benefit anymore, and neither can the HMBFPD, but the state of California sure can. In this era of skyrocketing medical costs, would you work some extra hours every month for guaranteed health care for life? I think most people would say yes in a heartbeat.  The value of this lifetime coverage far exceeds the additional hours of work to obtain it.

Is the longer workweek unsafe? We’d all be in trouble if it were – thanks to overtime, most firefighters are already working far more hours than the CDF contract requires.

Will the quality of our public safety protection suffer under CDF? Not at all. CDF provides local fire coverage to Woodside, Belmont, Redwood City and Pescadero (and hundreds of other communities statewide), and those towns have told us they are pleased with CDF.

Will response times be slower because CDF firefighters will get lost on their way to our homes? Of course not. Half our current firefighters live over the hill. Has anyone seen them wandering the mazy streets of El Granada with AAA maps, looking confused?

How will switching to CDF address the financial problems of our local fire protection? With overtime reduced by CDF and an unrelated change in our local ambulance service – we have just returned ambulance transport responsibilities to American Medical Response, which will mean much better service at a much lower cost – we’ll have money for training, fire inspection and equipment.

Are we stuck with CDF? No. CDF provides service on a one-year agreement. If we’re not happy, we can cancel after 12 months and choose another alternative.

Are all the firefighters really going to quit? Be serious. Our firefighters are highly-paid professionals, proud of their work and proud of their community. Many are concerned over the decision to begin negotiations with CDF, but not one has resigned so far.  I hope they will wait and see if a service agreement is signed with CDF and what that contract may offer for their continued employment and retirement.

CDF isn’t a perfect solution, but it would be hard to make a rational argument that it’s not an improvement over the existing situation.  Unfortunately, the arguments have ceased to be rational. It’s time to dispense with the hyperbole and the sharp objects, and stick to the facts – as your elected fire board directors have done. And those facts have brought most of us to the same answer. To those who disagree, I say do the same research we have and see if it leads you to a different conclusion.

Comment 1
Mon, November 6, 2006 7:17pm
Ed Carter
All my comments

Bruce MacKimmie’s letter is an excellent discussion of the careful consideration our two coastside fire district boards of directors are giving to maintaining and improving fire and emergency services on the coastside.  Bruce was the one who first pointed out the excessive costs we were paying under the HMBFPD arrangement with AMR for coastside ambulance service. This has now apparently been fixed.

The directors of both boards have worked hard in often tense and confrontational meetings to find solutions to what all agreed were unacceptable conditions within our local fire service organization.  We owe them all a debt of gratitude. 

The proposed CDF contract will result in additional resources being available for coastside fire protection. It will mean better working conditions for the firefighters by eliminating forced overtime.  The community should voice their support for the decision to contract with CDF.  It is a win for everyone.