Santa Ana Deficit Forces Hard Look at Fire Department

Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 | Santa Ana officials are now openly acknowledging that deep cuts to public safety are needed to close a budget deficit that could rise as high as $30 million in the next fiscal year.

And in its comprehensive report issued in September, Management Partners Inc., the city's contract budget analyst, specifically cited the need to reform the Santa Ana Fire Department's staffing policies. The report went so far as to say that some fire stations could be temporarily closed at night when call volume goes down.

"Management Partners believes that consideration should be given to eliminating the current fixed staffing model," the report says.

Firefighters union leaders have been less conciliatory than their counterparts in the police department about reopening labor contracts to pare down the deficit.

The city's firefighters union president said interim City Manager Paul Walters — who is also the city's police chief — wasn't completely forthcoming with union leaders.

Plans to study outsourcing the fire department "was done without any prior discussions with, or knowledge by, the Santa Ana firefighters," wrote Chris Roelle, president of the Santa Ana Firemen's Benevolent Association, in a statement emailed to a Voice of OC reporter. Roelle didn't provide specifics.

Fire experts agree that major revisions to the fire department such as fire station closures are hard to make without increasing risks to the public.

"They [the city] would have to answer the question, can we meet the response times with the minimal number of people, 24 hours a day, seven days a week? And if we can't, how much risk is the community willing to take?" said Ken Willette, division manager of the public fire protection division of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

The NFPA's recommendations, considered the gold standard in firefighting, place tight limits on response times. Under its guidelines, the first units must arrive at most emergency sites within four minutes, with secondary units arriving within eight minutes.

Santa Ana has 10 fire stations, and the city's agreement with its fire union requires a minimum staff of 63 firefighters on duty all day, every day. There is solid reasoning behind the numbers, says Santa Ana Fire Chief Dave Thomas. To close stations and reduce staffing could mean extended response times, he said.

"You can never really predict when someone's going to have a heart attack or a fire," Thomas said. "If you were to close down a fire station, what you would be doing is increasing response time to that area."

The Insurance Services Office, which rates fire departments for the insurance industry, has given the city its highest fire services rating, Thomas said, ensuring that property owners' fire insurance rates are low. Reductions in staffing or fire stations could threaten that status, leading to higher insurance rates, Thomas said.

Yet there are few other options to solve the budget crisis. Public safety costs, mainly employee compensation, consume nearly 80 percent of the general fund.

More than 800 city employees, mostly police and firefighters, received more than $100,000 in total compensation in 2010. One fire captain received more than $322,000 in compensation that year, according to figures provided by the city.

Santa Ana City Councilman Sal Tinajero said the city asked for an outsourcing study from the fire authority after the union refused to put forward solutions to the budget crisis. "We need very concrete givebacks. Fire did not do this," Tinajero said. "What I'm looking for is a plan, a plan where we can save money if we do this now."

Not everyone agrees that cutting firefighters and closing stations is impossible without detrimental impacts to service. The Management Partners report states that improvements in fire and building codes mean fewer fire emergencies than in decades past.

The report also cites figures showing that some fire engines and trucks respond to far fewer emergencies than others. And it has data showing that between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., there are fewer than one service call per hour. Yet the firefighting staffing levels remain the same throughout the length of the day, regardless of call volume.

Santa Ana's fire engines are staffed by four firefighters, and firefighters drive the ambulances. Some fire departments, however, use a three-man staffing model for fire engines and have civilian personnel driving ambulances, according to the report.

The Orange County Fire Authority — the regional fire service that serves many cities and unincorporated county territories — contracts with a private company for ambulance services. Some fire authority engines are staffed with only three firefighters. Similar restructuring of Santa Ana's fire department would undoubtedly mean substantial savings for the city.

Thomas indicated that alternative staffing models are being studied to save the city's more than 100-year-old fire department but wouldn't provide details because they're part of labor negotiations.

"One thing we can look at to reduce costs is to look at a different staffing model," Thomas said. Still he insisted: "Even the most current cities still support the four-person engine." He said that the current level of staffing is based on the ability to perform critical tasks quickly.

Thomas, however, did acknowledge that the fire department's staffing and fire station structure is based on a study of the city that took place in 1977 and that the frequency of fires has dropped since then.

But, he said, fires in family homes, which are typically the deadliest, spread more quickly than in the past because modern materials in household goods heat up faster. Plastics and petroleum-based compounds in televisions and other devices contribute to what fire experts call the "time temperature curve," the rate at which an area heats up.

"Flashover," the point at which a fire begins to spread extremely quickly, is happening sooner than ever, Thomas said.

Added Willette: "We are seeing much more intense, much hotter fires, fires that spread quicker than before."

Lower flashover points, fire experts say, mean that it is crucial to respond to fires quickly. Thomas said that because of such modern-day factors, the findings in the Management Partners report paint an incomplete picture.

"The piece that's missing is what's the community risk factor? What kind of calls are those, and what was the duration?" Thomas said.

Officials with Management Partners also acknowledge the dilemma.

"The bottom line is they [emergencies] still happen. And if they still happen, you've got to have a response capability to address them," said Andy Belknap, regional vice president for Management Partners.

He added, however: "Frankly, they need to do more analysis of the workload and the number of calls per service and the apparatus for responding to those services."

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