Pressed for money, Fullerton city leaders decided to keep their fire department on Tuesday night, canceling plans to switch over to the OC Fire Authority after nearly a year of negotiations.
“We’re looking at a solution to an affordability problem by recommending jumping into a more unaffordable situation,” said Councilman Bruce Whitaker against joining the fire authority. “It’s clear we can’t afford a Cadillac situation, and like with our streets, we have to do with something that’s not quite there.”
While the choice to pass on OCFA will save the city around $5 million annually, staff say it leaves the city with an understaffed and underperforming fire department that will take years to build back up, including one fire station that will be without an ambulance.
“Regionalization may indeed be the future of services, but it isn’t right now for me,” said Mayor Fred Jung at the Tuesday City Council meeting. “I live in the area serviced by Station 6 so suppose I should pray to God I don’t have a heart attack.”
During public comment, some Fullerton firefighters themselves called on the council to move forward with the fire authority contract, including Dan Lancaster, president of the Fullerton Firefighters Union.
Lancaster candidly said it will be a “very daunting task” to keep the Fullerton Fire Department.
“Our goal is to keep our fire engines staffed and our stations open and the Orange County Fire Authority can guarantee that but I’ll tell you right now, the Fullerton Fire department can’t,” he told the council.
Right now, over 25% of the department is unstaffed according to the city staff report.
Officials say that’s not a problem that can be fixed in the immediate future, with recruitment efforts stunted by the department offering 16% less salary for its open positions than other fire departments.
“It will take considerable resources, time and capital to build back up our fire department,” Fire Chief Adam Loeser said on Tuesday.
Brewing Financial Troubles
There are questions on whether Fullerton can afford to increase what they’re offering due to the city’s poor financial state that landed it in the top 20 cities most likely to have financial problems in California according to the state auditor’s office, the worst ranking in Orange County.
To review the state auditor’s city financial dashboard, click here.
Jung pointed to the auditor’s report, saying the city’s finances was his deciding factor against making a switch, adding the Fullerton firefighters union supported his 2020 election campaign.
“The only reason why we’re even at the very low end of the moderate scale not critical is because of the necessary budget cuts, the majority of this council had the courage to approve last year,” he said.
While the fire authority’s proposal would cost the city anywhere from $42 to $56 million in the next ten years, it would deliver enough EMTs and firefighters that none of the city’s rigs would be understaffed.
Other council members said while the fire authority may provide a better service than their own fire department, it’s not financially feasible with the city’s dwindling budget.
“We need to retain local control,” said Councilman Nick Dunlap. “Forget the semantics, over nine years this is going to cost the city between $42 and 56 million dollars more going to OCFA.”
Dunlap also said the union was behind the push to switch to OCFA all along.
“I’m really not trying to hammer on the pay increases, but the reality is there was an 11.5% increase over a two year period and on the heels of that, they push for a switch to OCFA, which will cost the city even more money,” he said.
Councilman Ahmad Zahra was the biggest proponent on the dais of moving forward with the shift to the fire authority, saying the council could not put a dollar value on a human life.
“We were entrusted by the public to provide public safety, and at this point we are not doing so,” Zahra said. “What cost would you put on a family’s life?”
Rebuilding the Fullerton Fire Department
Loeser presented a roadmap on how to rebuild the fire department as an alternative to joining OCFA that would take years to fully staff the department.
Fire Captain Michael Longeuay, who is in charge of the department’s new hire mini-academy, said it would take years to fully staff the department than the proposed plan to rebuild the fire department.
“There are no Paramedic Services in fire station six,” he said. “Our fire chief’s roadmap doesn’t get paramedics up there for another two years. So if somebody there is having a heart attack or stroke, respiratory difficulty, you have to wait for another rig to come from another area of our city to get Paramedic Services.”
“If we choose to go with OCFA, you get paramedic services day one.”
Each fire engine is also set to be staffed with just three firefighters instead of four, a move that could delay the department’s response time to major fires, a problem that could persist until 2024 or 2025 according to Loeser.
It remains unclear if the problem could go on longer than that, as the timeline presented by staff is a “best case scenario,” according to Loeser.
“We have a Herculean amount of work we’d have to do,” Loeser said. “We know what we’re doing, we just don’t have control over many of these variables.”
Councilman Jesus Silva, who’s set to leave office in just a few weeks, said the city should still move to the fire authority, and called for a vote that failed after Zahra was the only one to support it.
The final vote on sticking with the city’s fire department and starting negotiations for a contract with the union was 4-1, with Dunlap against.
Firefighters aren’t the only ones to implore city leaders to make the move to the county’s fire authority.
Some Fullerton residents also called on council members to join the fire authority to support the city’s fire fighters and ensure public safety.
“It is expensive to go to OCFA, but it’s also extremely expensive to get this fire department back where it needs to be,” said Pam Keller, a former city council member, at the meeting.
Eric Wayne, a resident, spoke out against the switch to OCFA.
“I would much prefer to see the city retain control of the fire department, much prefer local control to contracting things out,” he said.
The department is also set to begin giving an update every three months for the city council about their progress.
Whitaker said while the new situation isn’t the best, there isn’t a better alternative.
“You have to go to war with the army you have.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Silva chose not to run for reelection. Under the new council districts approved by the council, Silva no longer lived in an open seat, and therefore is ineligible to run until 2024. We regret the error.
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