Foon Rhee

What comes next for the Sacramento Fire Department?

Sacramento firefighters treat a demonstrator stabbed during a protest at the state Capitol in June 2016.
Sacramento firefighters treat a demonstrator stabbed during a protest at the state Capitol in June 2016. Sacramento Bee file

The city of Sacramento is hiring an interim fire chief so it can do a wider national search for a permanent replacement.

The local firefighters union also has a new president, with its leader for 10 of the last 15 years stepping down.

And the contract between the city and the union is being extended for six months to buy more time for a longer-term deal.

Let’s just say the fire department’s future is up in the air right now.

One thing I’m wondering: What will it all mean for the cost-saving reforms that are badly needed? At the top of the list: Putting civilian paramedics or emergency medical technicians in ambulances instead of firefighters.

 
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These days, the fire department is mostly an ambulance service, and a pretty expensive one at that. The majority of calls are for medical emergencies, not fires or cats in trees. The department’s 16 ambulances are each staffed by two “dual-role” firefighters, who get paid extra for paramedic duty. Going to “single-role” paramedics could save an estimated $400,000 a year per ambulance.

City Councilman Jeff Harris, who has championed staffing changes in the department, sees opportunity in all the change. He says he’s optimistic that “reforms may be within reach.” Besides paramedics, he also wants to discuss the number of firefighters in each engine and flexible contracts for peak-hour medical calls.

Harris says that with the city’s spiraling pension costs, the city “must look for efficiencies everywhere we can.”

He’s right. With more and more of the budget going to pensions, City Hall absolutely must deliver services as efficiently as possible. Otherwise, it will have to cut services or seek tax increases. Laying off workers to pay retirees is ludicrous.

Outgoing Fire Chief Walt White was open to staffing changes, though it didn’t endear him to the rank-and-file. He’s retiring this month.

Spokeswoman Linda Tucker says one reason the city is appointing an interim chief first is to get an outside view of what kind of leadership and experience a new chief needs. For taxpayers’ sake, the new chief must be willing to take on the firefighters union, if necessary, in the cause of reform.

Chris Andrew, a vice president of Local 522 who is its top official from the city fire department, told the City Council on Tuesday evening that the union is confident that City Manager Howard Chan will hire a good chief. “We don’t always agree,” Andrew said, but Chan is willing to listen on ways to improve the department.

Under the proposed labor agreement that went before the council on Tuesday evening, firefighters will get a 5 percent raise, similar to what other city employees have been receiving lately. (Police officers got a little more). Unlike the other unions, however, there is no new longer-term deal. Instead, the current contract, which expires in June, will be extended until December.

Neither the city nor the union would discuss what any sticking points are.

Robert Padilla, a spokesman for Local 522, said the negotiations are going well. “There are a lot of moving parts to this,” he told me. “It’s all positive steps in the right direction.”

Tucker says the six-month extension will give the city more time to evaluate its expenses and revenues.

A big part of the city’s financial forecast is Measure U, the half-cent sales tax approved in 2012 to restore the cuts to public safety forced by the Great Recession. It brings in more than $45 million a year, but will expire in March 2019 unless it is renewed. The city can’t balance its budget without that cash, so a renewal measure is certain to be on the November ballot.

Local 522 played a big role in financing the Measure U campaign in 2012. It hasn’t discussed the renewal campaign, Padilla said, but might help again.

It won’t be just City Hall asking. We’re in a big local election year, so candidates will covet the support – in money and manpower – that the firefighters union has at its disposal.

While much may be uncertain, that’s one thing that stays the same in Sacramento.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

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