A contentious divide has formed in recent months within the Santa Ana Firemen’s Benevolent Association as younger members have broken ranks over whether the Orange County Fire Authority should absorb the city’s 128-year-old Fire Department.
Sources close to the union say its younger members are in favor of the move, mainly because it gives them job security, but older firefighters don’t want to give up the decades-long identity and tradition of the Santa Ana Fire Department.
An OCFA takeover is one of the major steps proposed to remedy the city’s budget crisis. It would allow the city to shave as much as $10.5 million from a projected $30-million deficit without having to lay off firefighters.
Should the Santa Ana City Council decide to preserve its fire department and restructure its staffing model to cut costs, younger firefighters would likely be the first layoffs.
“The Orange County Register has made it sound like negotiations have gone swimmingly,” said one source, who didn’t want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation. “The truth is they haven’t.”
OCFA’s Board of Directors approved an agreement Jan. 26 to take over services in the city. The agreement is expected to go before City Council later this month.
Whether the fissure involves only a small group of outspoken firefighters or is a much wider fracture remains unclear. Joe Kerr, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, has said as recently as December that 95 percent of Santa Ana’s firefighters were in favor of transitioning to OCFA.
“It doesn’t get better than that,” Kerr had said.
However, a Jan. 11 memo sent by Fire Chief Dave Thomas and obtained by Voice of OC shows how infighting among the ranks of firefighters increased as it became more apparent that the takeover would become a reality.
“As we continue to analyze the OCFA Proposal request, I want to remind all of you that we will be courteous, respectful, and professional to each other, despite our personal opinions and preferences,” the memo reads.
“I understand that this process has been difficult on all of us, however, we are all representatives of this organization and the City and we will continue to follow all rules, regulations, policies and procedures.”
In an interview, Thomas said his letter was not a direct response to any infighting and could not speculate on whether there is a divide among younger and older firefighters.
“As I knew that this process would unfold, I knew there would be strong opinions one way or the other,” Thomas said. “So despite personal opinions or preferences, we still have a job to do and to remain focused on.”
Some firefighters were upset about the timing of the association’s vote to transition to OCFA, arguing that it was scheduled on a day when many firefighters couldn’t participate because of work schedules.
The division is unlikely to derail OCFA’s takeover. The negotiations at this point are exclusively between the leadership from both labor groups. Officials from those groups and at the city and OCFA say there remain only a few details to be ironed out before the upcoming council vote.
Chris Roelle, president of the Santa Ana Firemen’s Benevolent Association, wrote in an emailed statement sent by his spokesman:
“Every one of the Santa Ana Firemen’s Benevolent Association’s 204 members have had the opportunity to formally vote and provide their opinion regarding the City Manager’s proposal to contract out Santa Ana’s fire and paramedic services with the Orange County Fire Authority.”