Fire districts face a staffing crisis


By on Sat, May 26, 2007

Coastside fire departments are facing a severe staffing shortage, reports Julia Scott in the County Times.  More firefighters are leaving as the districts prepare for contracting with CalFire (formerly the California Department of Forestry), and the districts have not been hiring for positions that will be outsourced under the new contract. The staffing crisis could become a financial crisis as the districts find more-expensive ways to fill the gap.

But the Half Moon Bay fire department is hemorrhaging firefighters — only 22 firefighters and captains remain on staff, down from 31 in fiscal year 2006-2007, according to Half Moon Bay Fire Chief Paul Cole. Three firefighters are out on disability as well.

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A preliminary estimate put the cost of filling one fire station with three state employees a day at approximately $1.1 million a year, according to Cole. He said the fire district may decide to take action on the offer this summer, especially since the other option is more overtime.


CalFire will either come in by contract or on an emergency basis.  If HMBFPD can’t keep up Linestaff levels, HMBFPD would most likely discontinue service to PMFPD.  The PMFPD Board would then have NO CHOICE other than bringing in engines staffed by the State Fire Marshal. The HMBFPD and PMFPD Boards are constrained at this point by public safety issues.

HMBFPD Fire Fighters have been wringing the last bit of drama out of this.  The news coverage has been a succession of HMBFPD Fire Fighters making career limiting remarks on the way out the door.  But, each Fire Fighter that walked out the door contributed to the staffing emergency that has now empowered the Boards to react to a public safety crisis and call on the State Fire Marshal.  But, there are bigger messages to be conveyed than the plight of the HMBFPD Fire Fighters.  Other San Mateo County Districts and Municipalities have been shown the lengths they would have to go to in order to contract with CalFire.  That is why there is more news coverage on this story over the hill.

The San Mateo County Times failed to mention in their latest article Local 2400 sued PMFPD and HMBFPD Boards and obtained a temporary order baring the Districts from contracting with CalFire.  Had the lawsuit and writ of mandate for stay of contract not been filed, CalFire would have been able to take over a month ago and supply staff from its larger resources.  If there is a ruling from the Judge lifting the order, then CalFire could come in with their staffing resources.  The Coastside taxpayers can add the cost of the litigation of this lawsuit to the cost of solving the staffing crisis short term with overtime.

I agree with President MacKimmie’s remarks in the article. With the CalFire contract only pending litigation resolution, there is no point in taking on this additional expense, training and management load and delay.  HMBFPD being short staffed at both the Linestaff and Management level, should keep the emphasis on running operations day to day.

There are issues with hiring per diem Firefighters from other Departments within the County.  The HMBFPD and PMFPD Boards have to look at the financial risks associated with getting stuck with latent disability costs.  Given the shenanigans bordering on criminal that occurred within HMBFPD, why take on additional individual effectively unaccountable Fire Fighters and create more internal Management problems?  Better to get accountable engine companies from the State Fire Marshal.

The $1.1M cost for one station from the State Fire Marshal is $350K to $800K less than the current cost for one station using HMBFPD rates.

CalFire is the only option the residents of PMFPD or PMFPD as a service zone within a combined Coastside Fire can afford long term.

That’s an interesting point:  that the staffing crisis is the result of the temporary restraining order that the union secured against the districts.

Barry,

It’s more accurate to say the staffing crisis would have been resolved a month ago had there not been an injunction against the Boards contracting with CalFire.  Let me provide some more details.

Historically attrition has been ongoing at HMBFPD for years.  The historical causes of attrition are many.  Probably the most significant cause is HMBFPD has been effectively a training Department.  In the past, when Linestaff numbers dropped low enough and overtime cost became a consideration, a new batch of recruits were hired and put through the Fire Academy and then trained and certified in the Department.  Maybe HMBFPD was not the recruits first choice, but it was a way to get on at a Bay Area Department.  Other Departments in the area could then cherry pick the trained and certified Firefighters out of HMBFPD.  There were other considerations adding to the attrition.  It is a small Department.  The opportunities for promotion were limited. There is not a lot of action. As has been pointed out in numerous news articles, Fire Fighters have gotten frustrated with the Board, Management and each other.

Today we are at one of those points where the Linestaff numbers dropped low enough and overtime costs have become significant.  But, the circumstances are different, now.  As has been discussed previously, the Board’s majorities voted to contract with CalFire.  Many of the Fire Fighters have said they don’t want to work for CalFire.  For those Fire Fighters that have options of employment at other Departments, they are exercising them.  The attrition associated with not wanting to work for Cal Fire is being added onto the historical attrition described above.

There are also three Fire Fighters out on disability.

The Boards have already effected a solution to the staffing shortage by contracting with CalFire.

As Local 2400 threatened last summer, they sued the Districts.  The initial judge signed the order handed to him when the suit was filed by the plaintiff.  A month later at the initial hearing the Judge assigned another Judge to the case late in the afternoon Friday with a hearing time of 9:00 AM Monday morning.  Apparently the new Judge hadn’t had time to review any of the filings and let the preliminary writ against contracting with CalFire stand as a temporary order and said the case would be heard within three months.  The case really hasn’t been reviewed by a Judge, yet.  But, one could infer from all the Fire Fighter fairwell testimonials in the press, their feet speak for how they think this case will be resolved.

The Boards have a public safety function they have to sustain.  Hence the staffing emergency and the requests to the State Fire Marshal.  It’s interesting that the situation was not resolvable by the two Special Districts in San Mateo County, cooperative Fire arrangements in San Mateo County or the courts in San Mateo County.  It winding up being an emergency requiring the intervention of the State Fire Marshal.

Let’s not forget that the unhappy situation is largely the result of mismanagement by the boards and the officers they hired over the past decade, creating an unhappy situation for the people, the firefighters, actually doing the work of the department. Before all the board shenanigans that disrupted the operations of long-enduring districts and led to the push for consolidation of the coastside districts, a firefighters job was one of the better local ways to earn a living.

So now the boards have created a self-satisfying situation—they can, in desperation, only hire the outside help they have been wanting to hire in spite of the objections (and in the face) of of the firefighters who have been serving us. Gee, I really want a truck full of tired people who have been insulted and pounded into the ground answering my emergency. Thanks, boards.

The several local firefighters I know about who have left the two departments have not been “cherry-picked” by other agencies. They would have preferred to work where they live. They are leaving to get away from what they claim is a relatively bad situation, in spite of the costs for any who continue to live on the coast.

Suing government to have one’s grievances addressed is one of those First Amendment things. If anyone is to blame, it is most often those who caused the grievances and not citizens who are exercising their rights. Does anyone imagine horsing around with union lawsuits is how local firefighters want to spend their precious (because of pulling extra work due to the low staffing) free time?

Carl May

Carl May,

What is your solution beyond complaining and revisionist history?

Responsibility clearly lies with the Boards.  But, really it is a more general failure of the community.  The Boards respond to the constituency that elect them. So, we wind up with an odd lot of Fire Fighters, ex-Fire Fighters and some “civilians” on the Fire Boards all saying, they want to give something back to the community.  There is a long tradition of Fire Fighters and ex-Fire Fighters getting on the Boards and taking care of the next generation of Fire Fighters.  So, there has been a tension between representation of the employee interests and the civilian’s interest. On the CalFire contract an ex-Fire Fighter cast the swing vote for CalFire, recognizing the party was over and it was time for the disabled and retired Fire Fighters to look out for themselves and their families and assure enough money remained in the Districts to fund their post employment benefits.  I can really sympathize with the anger and frustration of the active Fire Fighters.  They were betrayed by some of the people they helped elect.

But, there has been one thing no one has really wanted to talk about.  Is the party really over?  Why can’t the status quo be maintained?  PMFPD is a small District.  There are roughly 2000 households in the PMFPD paying an average of about $800 per household per year for Fire and Emergency service. Currently PMFPD pays about $1.4M to HMBFPD to staff PMFPD’s engine.  The HMBFPD per station cost for that service is more like $2.1M.  Take the difference between the per station cost and the current negotiated price and divide it by the number of households and you will see what every household would have to pay to maintain the status quo in PMFPD.  It would cost $350 MORE per household per year to maintain the status quo for the HMBFPD Fire Fighters in PMFPD.  The spiraling Bay Area Fire Fighter salaries, short work week and lawsuits have priced the HMBFPD Fire Fighters out of the PMFPD market.  The party is over in PMFPD.

You may view the Board’s actions over the past years as capricious.  I see it as responding to the financial realities of sustaining the service in a small District.  You are free to grab your clip board and start a petition for a new $350 parcel tax in PMFPD to preserve the local livelihood of roughly ten Coastsiders.  If the local Fire Fighters had been truly honest about their petition, that is what they would have had on it.

I’ve been saying for quite some time that HMBFPD is subsidizing PMFPD, and Vince has now provided some numbers to support that statement.  I had been under the impression that the subsidy was $200,000 per year, basically the amount of the negotiated “adjustment” a couple of years ago.  Vince seems to be implying that the subsidy is much higher than that.

I’m very concerned that the merger of Half Moon Bay Fire Protection District and Point Montara Fire Protection District to form the Coastside Fire Protection District is being done primarily to cast that subsidy in stone.  Everyone keeps talking about “cost savings”, yet few are willing to name a number and support it.  The savings from the merger will be at most 1% of the combined budget.  Operations have been merged for a decade so there are no further operational savings—it’s all some relatively trivial cost savings from eventually reducing the number of board members and board staff.

However, there is this constant drumbeat of “one Coastside, one District, everything shared.”  The reality is that HMBFPD could survive on its own if it really had to, although it would be tough for a while.  PMFPD as you’ve shown, simply cannot survive on its own any longer, at least not without abandoning the guideline of 3 firefighters per engine or substantially raising the benefit assessment for all Moss Beach and Montara property owners.  So how does the merger fix this?  It uses HMBFPD’s better cash flow to prop up the higher cost MB/M area.  My concern is that sometime after the merger there may not be enough money to run the combined district and the board will then come to all the property owners in the district and ask for more money.  I have previously done calculations and determined that to equalize the assessments between the current HMBFPD territory and the PMFPD territory will require doubling the current HMBFPD assessment from $35/parcel/year to just about $70/parcel/year.  Is this fair?  That’s why I’ve insisted on the merged district having “service zones”, but the reality is that the written conditions for the merger are intentionally very weak on how the service zones will be run.

Carl, if you’re so against the merger, rally the community.  The LAFCo protest hearing for this is in HMB on June 11.  That’s the last chance to stop this.  Other than this post, I’m not going to knock myself out, because it seems that the two of us are the only ones against the merger.

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”—George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Mine is not revisionist history. We never had these troubles in Point Montara until a couple of boards in succession got goofy with district management after we voted a substantial tax on ourselves in the 90’s. One of these boards voted an insane (for the small district) jump in management salaries after the tax was approved. The next board, with one member out of three who was appointed and not even elected by the citizens, then decided to solve things by abandoning the district through a several-stage consolidation program with a neighboring district down the coast—a neighboring district with monumental internal problems, including personnel problems, of its own. Yes, citizens can be blamed for electing board members to do tasks neither they nor the board members appear to understand very well, but they can’t be blamed for the unelected Point Montara board member who was probably the most public and vocal of all in favor of consolidation. As I recall, that guy never did manage to get elected in ensuing elections, did he?

I love it how people assume others should come up with answers to problems created partially by local mismanagement under the assumption all must now live with the mismanagement—accepting all that goes into HMB-style station calculations for example. Or answers to problems caused by external factors such as state-level money grabs out of local districts. Or answers to gross stupidities in government costs and requirements caused by lack of a population plan and other governmental elements needed for any kind of sustainability for our area. I have given plenty of examples in the past of small, mostly rural, districts in California that endure through local support and cooperative arrangements—not that they necessarily have the answers to our particular, somewhat self-imposed mess but that they demonstrate some sorts of solutions can be found in spite of state hegemony over tax money.

Viewed objectively from the standpoint of the individual citizen, California, overall, is a train wreck in progress—economically, environmentally, and governmentally. Although some small subpopulations “get it,” the likelihood the state’s electorate will wake up to the fundamental factors fueling the slow charge to Hell is close to nil. The second best thing we can hope for is for wakeful geographic subpopulations to get as much control over their local situation as possible in order to do relatively better than the masses engaged in the general decline, a decline that will become ever more expensive as artificial, urban systems increasingly dominate. No one knows better what is suitable for a locality than the locals, as out-of-the-area county government in Redwood City demonstrates every day.

Carl May

Carl May,

How is any of your spin on history relevant to the situation today?

If a Board ten years ago had done something different it would not have effected the current reserves significantly.  The present Board has done a good job of maintaining the reserves and not picking up the tab for HMBFPD’s problems for many years. 88 percent of the current costs are professional staff costs dictated by the going rates for that staff in San Mateo County and providing service in San Mateo County.    The District has $1.7M revenue per year, about $750K in reserves and about $200K of overhead costs not associated with staffing.

Heres what we know about the options for PMFPD today:

Can the PMFPD afford HMBFPD rates with HMBFPD’s own employees at $2.1M per year? NO.

Can PMFPD afford to hire a Chief and Linestaff at low end of going SMC rates at probably $2.2M per Year? NO.

Can PMFPD afford to contract for Chief services and Linestaff from CalFire(without the economies of scale of first combining with HMBFPD) at a rough cost of $1.9M per year? NO.

San Mateo City Fire and North County Fire Authority no bid on providing services to PMFPD by itself, because they both knew the revenue base was not available in PMFPD to pay their rates.

PMFPD only has one option at this point, the one the present Board selected.

But, you insist we swear a death oath to local control, put the people you approve on the Board, scour the hinterlands of California to the find the mythical professional single engine Districts you have heard anecdotes of and bring that hidden wisdom back to PMFPD and implement it in San Mateo County for you?  I think the simpler solution is for you to find that mythical place for yourself.

Leonard,

The short answer is this is a detail that may get dwarfed by other financial considerations.  But, here is a summary of what I know that addresses your concerns.

The current PMFPD Board has been pretty aggressive about letting the HMBFPD pay for its lawsuits and services that are not a benefit to PMFPD.  With everything going on the last year and half, the rates were left as they were because of the expectation the two Districts would merge and all the reserve funds would go into one joint reserve fund.  There has also been an attitude at the Boards of with all the big issues, why sweat the fine points of cost allocation.  The big issues have far more significant costs and savings than worrying about $200K one way or the other on the Fire Service Agreement(FSA).

There are two very distinct cases: PMFPD with a FSA with HMBFPD and PMFPD consolidated with HMBFPD.  The FSA says PMFPD pays for the services it receives.  Under the FSA PMFPD has no responsibility for how HMBFPD manages it’s employees.  For example whether HMBFPD staffs PMFPD with overtime Linestaff or keeps it’s staffing at 31, so there is no need for overtime is not specified in the contract.  Similarly PMFPD is not responsible for any of the litigation of HMBFPD with its employees.  If PMFPD was consolidated with HMBFPD I would expect the PMFPD service zone should pay 1/3 of the costs of the combined District   So, what I was saying is the difference from a FSA is $200K and the difference is $400K if PMFPD is consolidated with HMBFPD.

I too share your concerns about the PMFPD service zone being subsidized in the larger Coastside Fire.  Subsidies become major issues over time.  For example look at Belmont and San Carlos.

I don’t think a subsidy will be necessary.  The cost savings with CalFire are quite impressive when compared with HMBFPD having their own staff.  The longer CalFire work week save considerably.  All the previous CalFire estimates were based on about 31 of the HMBFPD Linestaff moving over to CalFire with red circled salaries.  The plan was no one would lose their job, so with the longer CalFire work week there would have been some staff surplus.  But, the attrition of the HMBFPD Fire Fighters will mean less staff surplus and more non red circled Fire Fighters.  Also one of the costs that was always an issue was the cost of the 24/7 Operations Chiefs.  The last CalFire plan I saw had the Battalion Chief shared with Cal Fire’s Pescadero station on some days.  The economies of scale really are there.  Coastside is three stations combing resources with nine others.  PMFPD and HMBFPD by themselves would likely be at a disadvantage in negotiating with CalFire. It’s far easier for a contractor to deal with one Board on the Coastside.

End of part 1 of 2.

Leonard,  Part 2 of 2

HMBFPD reserves are very low.  PMFPD’s are in really good shape.  In the consolidation the reserves are commingled. There is a short term financial benefit to the residents of HMBFPD at expense of the residents of PMFPD as far as reserves.  PMFPD is also buying into the long term liabilities of HMBFPD.  Also, getting the two Boards in one tent will prevent all the costly inter board strife.

I have been told numerous times by many “experts” that the minor financial inequities are dwarfed by the larger financial benefits of a larger scale Department.  Five stations was supposed to be the optimal size for a district.  So, even after consolidation we are on the small side.  But, we will be contracting with CalFire which has a large presence in the State and County.

We have the staffing emergency, the lawsuit and the pending consolidation.  It’s all a mess now.  I can’t say which way any of these are going to go for sure.  The equities of the cost allocations for the service zone are dwarfed by all the other things going on right now.  I support the course the two Boards have put the Districts on, a contract with CalFire and consolidation.

End of art 2 of 2.

Rally the community? Sorry, Leonard, I only have one life to waste.

It would, however, have been interesting to see how the MMB community would have voted (without rallying cries) at the time in the late 90’s that the partially unelected three-member board started the Point Montara District on the road to dissolution into HMB/EG’s district. You know, before the squirming around with the “neighbors” managed to eliminate some options and help work the district into a tighter straightjacket.

Carl May