An Orange County Fire Authority hand crew being trained. (OCFA photo)

Orange County Professional Firefighters Association President Joe Kerr will be asking the Orange County Fire Authority Board of Directors tonight to put on hold tomorrow’s planned layoff of a 22-member hand crew.

The layoff is unnecessary, Kerr said, because the fire union has found organizations willing to pay for the hand crew, a team that clears brush during a wildfire, for off-season work. Kerr said the new revenue would total about $1.2 million.

Kerr also said that the layoffs betray a “handshake agreement” in which union members gave up salary increases and agreed to pay a larger share of their retirement benefits in exchange for a promise that no members would be laid off.

“They gave me a handshake agreement at the bargaining table that none of my guys would be laid off,” Kerr said.

Fire Authority spokesman Kris Concepcion said he doesn’t recall this agreement and said the layoff should come as no surprise to the union. The Fire Authority is sticking to an agreement made with the union earlier this year stipulating that the hand crew would be seasonal.

Concepcion said the terms of the agreement, which the board will vote on tonight, were that members would contribute their COLAs toward retirement. He said he wasn’t sure if that meant “no layoffs.”

“The layoff of the crew at the end of November was not unexpected for these guys,” Concepcion said.

According to Kerr, the layoffs could have serious implications on firefighting efforts in the future.

They run counter to a recommendation made in the after-action report following the 2007 Santiago wildfire, which scorched 28,517 acres and 14 homes in Orange County. The report said the lack of hand crews and other equipment during the first 48 hours of the fire “limited suppression efforts.”

And, Kerr said, it is important to have members of the hand crew active during the winter months so they will know the terrain and train for firefighting conditions. He added that fires do occur in the winter months, which the after-action report also asserted.

Concepcion said the Fire Authority is well aware of the recommendation made in the report, but reports and reality don’t always mesh.

“Unfortunately, because of budgetary restraints, we cannot implement every one of those recommendations,” Concepcion said.

Kerr said a majority of the funding for the hand crew could be found by contracting with organizations who need their services. A representative of OC Parks, a department of the county that manages much of the county’s parkland, will come to the meeting and indicate a readiness to pay for the handcrew to clear brush on county parkland over the winter, Kerr said.

Other organizations that could pay for the hand crew’s off-seasons services include Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric, Kerr said.

Check back for our report on the meeting.

Correction: Due to a typo by an editor, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Fire Authority Spokesman Kris Concepcion does recall a “handshake” agreement with the union regarding hand crew layoffs. In fact, Concepcion doesn’t remember that conversation.


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