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Placentia became the first city to completely exit the Orange County Fire Authority and form its own fire department Wednesday morning when the City Council voted 3-1 for the move, despite protests from virtually every firefighter union in OC.

“I think change or potential for change create fear or nervousness for folks … it’s a little unnerving and it’s a particularly sensitive subject,” Councilman Ward Smith, retired Placentia police chief, said before the nearly 1 a.m. vote.

The move is expected to save Placentia millions of dollars, according to the staff report, as the city is currently in a $2.7 million budget deficit.

“I was on the board of OCFA for four years. I love our firefighters … this has nothing to do with service quality or service or personnel. This is purely a fiscal matter,” Councilman Craig Green said before the vote.

Councilman Jeremy Yamaguchi voted against it and Councilman Chad Wanke was on a scheduled family vacation. Yamaguchi said he opposed it because he had concerns about the city taking over 911 dispatch operations for medical emergencies.

The city will use the private ambulance company Lynch Ambulance to handle emergency paramedic calls instead of fire department personnel. Paramedics account for the majority of 911 calls in the city and each of the two new fire engines coming to Placentia will be staffed by three full-time firefighters and a reserve firefighter. All of the full-time firefighters will also be a licensed emergency medical technicians.

Lynch Ambulance will have two ambulances in the city at all times and  staffed by at least four paramedics. Their headquarters is in Anaheim, within 700 feet of Placentia’s border.  

California Professional Firefighters President Brian Rice echoed what many firefighters said throughout the night during over two hours of public comment when Rice said the move threatens public safety by employing inexperienced firefighters and paramedics.

“You guys are in a bad spot,” Rice told the Council. “Your consultants are selling snake oil … you can’t get more for less.”

If anyone dies because of the newly formed fire department, Rice threatened to sue consultants, including former fire chiefs Ken Riddle of Las Vegas, Nev. and Mike Iacona of Flagstaff, Ariz.

“I’m going to come back and sue your ass for everything you got,” Rice said, before being cut off by Mayor Rhonda Shader and told to address the City Council during public comment.   

The City Council chambers were packed beyond the 150-person maximum occupancy limit, brimming with residents, firefighters and private paramedics. An overflow room held another roughly 50 people as another roughly 50 more people, mostly firefighters, stood outside city hall and watched the meeting on their phones or tablets.

City Manager Damien Arrula attempted to counter the various claims made during public comment throughout his over two-hour rundown on the bid process, the consultants and how each of the fire department and ambulance services are going to work.

Before Arrula began, he said the 100-slide presentation was to “counter, in a professional way, the misinformation that has been presented to you (City Council) tonight and as a community.”

During public comment, many firefighters said the model of using a private paramedic was untested and “half-baked.”

“I heard a lot of statistics and facts tonight. And there was no sourcing on the data I heard tonight,” Arrula said. “I’ve also heard a lot of information tonight … that this is an unproven, untested model …  those types of comments. That’s absolutely false. 56 out of 58 counties in California use private [ambulance] providers.”

“There’s only two counties in the state of California that do not use private [ambulance] services … that is Los Angeles and Orange County,” Arrula said.  

Under the current OCFA model, a paramedic is attached to the firetruck, which usually means the fire truck will be the first on-scene, regardless if it’s a call for a fire or emergency medical services.

After someone is loaded into the ambulance, the firefighter-paramedic rides with them to the hospital, where the paramedic waits with the patient until being transferred to the emergency room. During that time, the fire engine follows the ambulance and waits for the paramedic to finish the transfer, effectively taking that fire engine offline during that time, according to the staff report. Most of the time, an engine is down less than an hour.

Although Lynch Ambulance currently only does hospital transports in Orange County, they have years of experience dealing with 911 calls in contracted counties nearby such as Riverside or San Bernardino, according Arrula.

Arrula called on Carl Shultz during his presentation, who is a medical doctor and the emergency medical services director for the County Healthcare Agency.

“They meet all the benchmarks,” Schultz said. “They have no violations.”

Schultz develops the standards for emergency medical services in Orange County and teaches at UC Irvine.

Shader asked Schultz what types of cases Lynch Ambulance regularly handles.

“Generally speaking they don’t see a lot of cardiac arrests. But everything else from brain bleeds, strokes and heart attacks, they transport it all the time,” Schultz said.  

Medical doctor Frank Maas, director of emergency trauma and transport at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, also vouched for Lynch Ambulance. 

“My background is 40 years in emergency departments,” Maas said to the Council. “During the course of that, I’ve had to deal with every form of EMS (emergency medical service) both from the public side and the private side … in my experience, they’re (Lynch) one of the top ambulance companies I ever dealt with.”

He also said Lynch Ambulance transports a wide variety of cases.

”We (CHOC through Lynch) transport severely critical patients all the time. We’re talking about cardiac problems … we’re talking about bringing kids as big as your hand over (to the hospital),” Maas said.  

Arrula also addressed claims about inadequate training for the city’s new firefighters.

“There’s been a lot of misrepresentation about training,” Arrula said. “We will adhere to the California state fire training mandatory requirements” and continuously train “with reserves only designed to supplement … the career firefighters.”

He also said a majority of Lynch’s paramedics have dealt with 911 calls.

“I saw a lot of stuff going through facebook that these are kids … the freshman team,” Arrula said. “Again, misinformation: ‘they don’t have 911 experience’ — 75 percent of them have 911 experience.”

The fire authority’s cost to Placentia increased 47 percent since 2009, while the general fund has only increased 12 percent since then, according to a staff report attached to the agenda. Meanwhile, the Placentia Police Department budget took a nine percent hit during that time. Despite the constant cost increases, there were no changes to OCFA’s service or staffing levels during that time frame.  

Because of Placentia’s tight budget and concerns over OCFA’s rising costs, the City Council decided to send a notice of intent to withdraw from the agency in June 2018 and start looking to form its own fire department.

If the city didn’t send the letter then, Placentia’s contract with OCFA would have automatically continued until June 2030. The city’s current contract will expire June 30, 2020, unless renewed.

The OCFA is a regional firefighter agency serving 23 cities throughout Orange County and the unincorporated areas. A council member from each member city has a seat on the agency’s Board of Directors, along with two Orange County Supervisors. Placentia no longer has a seat on the board because it exercised its exit clause. The same thing happened to Irvine last year when it issued a notice to exit the agency when its City Council said Irvine was paying too much to OCFA.  Irvine has since renewed with the agency.

The fire authority is expected to cost Placentia nearly $6.8 million for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which runs from July 1 2019 to June 30 next year. Placentia’s fire and ambulance services start up costs for staffing during that same time will run the city $1.6 million and in its first year of operation during the next fiscal year, it’s estimated to cost the city under $5.2 million.

Placentia’s fire department is expected to take over firefighting operations from OCFA July 1, 2020.

By 2030, OCFA’s cost was expected to increase to $10.6 million, while the city fire department is expected to be $6.1 million, according to the study.  

According to the study, Placentia expects to save $28.3 million over the next 10 years by forming its own fire department and privatizing the paramedics services.

The Tuesday meeting also saw some officers from the Placentia Police Department voice concerns over the OCFA costs.

Placentia Officer Brian Perry said while the police and OCFA have a good working relationship, “despite this relationship … it has come to our attention that over the past 10 years, OCFA’s cost has risen 47 percent, while Placentia PD went down 10 percent.”

“OCFA is just too expensive and the rising costs are not sustainable to this city,” Perry said.

Arrula said the model Placentia will employ next year is tried and tested.

“This is the most widely used model in California and the nation with what is being recommended to you tonight … despite outside influence and threats,” Arrula said.  

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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