Do the Numbers Add Up for Brea’s Fire Department?

A Brea Fire Department truck. The city's fire department had been in danger of being disbanded due to budget shortfalls. (Photo credit: unknown)

A Brea Fire Department truck. The city's fire department had been in danger of being disbanded due to budget shortfalls. (Photo credit: unknown)

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Friday, July 30, 2010 | The fate of Brea’s Fire Department may have been settled earlier this month with the City Council voting to keep the department intact, but there remains disagreement on details of the reorganization plan.

Budget constraints had forced the city to consider disbanding the department and bringing in the Orange County Fire Authority to provide the city’s fire protection. But City Manager Tim O’Donnell convinced a council majority that the administration could make enough cuts to keep it.

O’Donnell said he is confident that the savings can be achieved, but Dan Gibson, president of the Brea Professional Firefighters Association, called O’Donnell’s plan “terrible.”

“How they’re going to do it, I don’t even think they know yet,” Gibson said. “They’re just going to shoot from the hip and adjust it as they go.”

Gibson said the parts of the plan based on retirements are especially problematic. “It’s unrealistic because a lot of the savings are based on attrition,” he said. “We only have two people eligible for retirement.”

O’Donnell’s plan assumes nine retirements.

Bill Gallardo, financial services director for Brea, couldn’t explain the disparity, saying Brea Fire Chief Al Nero developed the plan. “I didn’t do the numbers on that one,” Gallardo said.

Nero was on family leave and not available for comment, but Fire Marshall Dana Kemper said he knew of at least three firefighters eligible for retirement. Kemper said that even if only three retirements occur in the next five years, limits on overtime should result in significant savings for the city.

“We don’t know for sure how that’s going to work out,” Kemper said. “The overtime will offset our budget while we wait for our attrition to mature.”

A survey released in March by the Employee Benefits Research Institute found that nearly a quarter of Americans have postponed plans to retire in the past year due to the sour economy. Kemper said he didn’t think a similar trend would be seen in the Fire Department, especially with the tight overtime restrictions, which he believes may encourage some firefighters to retire.

O’Donnell agreed with Kemper, saying that the retirements would save the department money, but that they are not pivotal to the reorganization.

“We’re not counting on [retirements],” O’Donnell said. “We’ll continue to receive the overtime savings of $750,000 per year.”

Gibson said the overtime restrictions could end up being the worst part of the plan.

“Savings through overtime mean a reduction in staff,” Gibson said. “It becomes a safety issue. It’s a 24 percent reduction in line-level personnel.”

O’Donnell said the overtime limits would be lifted in the event of an emergency or during a red flag warning. “We’re talking about public safety,” he said. “We’re not going to mess with that.”

Sharing a battalion chief with Fullerton, which is expected to save Brea about $220,000, is another part of the plan that that isn’t set in stone.

Councilman Marty Simonoff expressed some concern about the fact that when he spoke to members of the Fullerton City Council, they were unaware of Brea’s proposed sharing plan.

O’Donnell told Simonoff that although the Fullerton City Council hadn’t heard of the plan, Fullerton’s fire chief had committed to a three-month pilot program.

Fullerton Fire Chief Wolfgang Knabe said both cities have a vacancy for a battalion chief, and that if the program is successful, it would help save money while providing a high quality of service to residents.

“Bottom line is that in this economy we want to save the taxpayers money,” Knabe said.

Knabe said he was aware of several cities in Northern California that had experimented with this type of sharing program, some successfully, others not. He said that the scope of the program will be limitied and that its efficacy will be evaluated sometime in November.

“We’re still working on the details,” Knabe said. “This would just be for emergency responses on a few shifts a week.”

Gibson remains unconvinced.

“There was a lot of momentum from the community toward OCFA,” Gibson said. “Obviously they didn’t listen to any of the people.”

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