A robust, but efficient city fire department

Sacramento city firefighters respond in May to a bicycle-car collision.
Sacramento city firefighters respond in May to a bicycle-car collision. Sacramento Bee file

Armed with a new report on response time, Sacramento’s firefighters union is starting a full-court press to beef up its ranks.

The consultant’s deployment review concludes that the fire department’s response is nearly two minutes slower than the national standard. It blames understaffing and recommends reopening one shuttered station and opening three new ones to fill in coverage gaps outside the central city with the current 24.

City Council members agreed Tuesday night to start a detailed discussion later this month, but Councilman Larry Carr asked the right question: What result do they want from the fire department and at what cost?

We all want to be safe from fire. But before rushing into an unaffordable spending spree – staffing each firehouse costs about $2.4 million a year – council members ought to keep some important points in mind.

The department already has been reinforced with the Measure U half-cent sales tax, which is paying for 110 firefighters and funneling more than $16 million in 2016-17. The city is replacing Fire Stations 14 and 15, at a cost of $14.5 million.

Fire protection has to be balanced against police and all the other services that residents expect. In total, $109 million of the city’s $425 million general fund budget is going to the fire department.

And if this consultants’ report is to be given such weight, so should other studies that show the department could be more efficient with its current staffing. A case in point: Replacing one of the two firefighters in city ambulances with a civilian paramedic or EMT would save a lot of money, about $400,000 per year per ambulance.

Medical emergencies make up 60 percent of the department’s service calls. The new report says the city needs to add at least three ambulances during peak hours to its overworked fleet of 15; a union leader told the council that ambulances should be added around the clock.

With civilian paramedics, the cost of staffing new ambulances would be much less; they might even be paid for with savings from putting civilians in existing ambulances.

Outgoing City Manager John Shirey wants to use some civilians, and Councilman Jeff Harris has highlighted the issue. But it hasn’t been a priority for most council members and there’s stiff resistance from the union.

If union leaders are really serious about protecting the public while not soaking taxpayers, they should at least be willing to give on this issue.