Many members of Fullerton’s Fire Department showed up at City Hall for a special City Council meeting on September 6 to listen and give their input on the future of fire services in our city.
The question before City Council is: Should the City keep its 114-year-old fire department, or contract out fire services with Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA)? OCFA currently provides fire services for 23 cities in Orange County plus unincorporated areas.
The firefighters who spoke during public comment said they wanted Fullerton to go with OCFA—citing low pay in Fullerton and an “unsustainable” fire department.
In January, at the request of City Council, OCFA presented a proposal for the City to join this agency. Upon receiving this report, the City contracted with a company called Management Partners to do an independent analysis of the proposal.
OCFA’s original proposal stated that it would save the City about $5.7 million annually to start. However, the proposal did not take into account all the costs the City would continue paying in connection with the Fullerton City Fire Department, including pensions owed to current fire employees, ambulance transport and billing costs, workers’ compensation costs for existing cases, retiree healthcare, property insurance, and the one-time costs to transition to OCFA.
At the special meeting on January 6, City Council and the public heard highlights from Management Partners’ analysis. Here are some key takeaways from the report:
• Costs will be higher with OCFA than with a “properly funded” City Fire Department—around $5 million higher annually. Because the report determined that Fullerton’s fire department was unsustainable and underfunded, it developed a hypothetical budget for an independent Fullerton Fire Department with more sustainable funding levels to use as a comparison with the OCFA proposal.
• If Fullerton stays with its own fire department, it will have to increase annual expenditures to retain its fire- fighters and offer competitive pay. Firefighters are leaving Fullerton to take jobs with other agencies because the pay in Fullerton has not kept up with the market for several years. The differential has grown to about 15 to 20 percent…The City recently granted a pay raise of over 5 percent, but this still did not bring pay up to market levels…Since 2014, 74 personnel have separated from the Fullerton Fire Department. Of the separations, 24 were due to retirement or dismissal and 50 were due to resignation. Resignations overwhelmingly are due to job offers with surrounding agencies because of the higher rate of pay.
• The City would realize the same or better level of service with OCFA, which would continue to operate the existing fire stations and would upgrade all Fullerton units to full advanced life support units by adding two paramedics to the number of personnel working daily.
Fullerton Fire Chief Adam Loeser called the department’s retention issues “a very difficult challenge.”
“This last week was very difficult,” Loeser said. “We lost three firefighters. Two we had to release from probation, one resigned, and I got notice that my deputy chief is taking a job at a different department…We have a vacancy rate in our department of 25 percent. I’m budgeted for 87 people total (firefighters, prevention, clerical). Right now, I’m at 65…I look over this last year, and ask where have my people gone and why? It does come down to compensation and benefits.”
Brian Fennessy, Fire Chief for OCFA, echoed Loeser’s concerns regarding retention.
“If 25 percent of my fire department were vacant, we’d be using words like ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency,’” Fennessy said.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, several firefighters and their family members urged Council to take action—either to go with OCFA or better fund the department.
“The inability to retain firefighters has forced our firefighters to work extra hours each week, which is taking extreme mental and physical tolls on all of us,” said Carly Lancaster, whose husband Dan is a Fire Captain and president of the firefighters union.
John Miller, a captain and paramedic, said, “I’ve worked for the City for the past 18 years and I’ve seen this department go from the pride of Orange County to the steppingstone for the next opportunity…The life raft is here. We can no longer fill the holes in the boat to stay afloat. The only option is OCFA.”
“We can no longer sustain services to the level we used to back in the day,” Fire captain and union president Dan Lancaster said. “We need a decision. This council can no longer kick this can down the road and say, ‘Next meeting. Next Meeting.’ My firefighters demand a decision as soon as possible. That’s where we’re at. Make a decision so we can do our job.”
Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Whitaker said that, since over 80 percent of all fire calls are medically-related, perhaps the department could save money by adopting a different deployment model.
“The structure with which we are responding seems to be a bit of an over- commitment of professionals to your average medical emergency response,” Whitaker said.
This was also the contention of a recent Orange County Grand Jury Report entitled “Where’s the Fire? Stop Sending Fire Trucks to Medical Calls.”
Both Chiefs Loeser and Fennessy took issue with that report and the contention that their departments are overcommitting resources.
“We staff for the ‘What if?’ What if it is a cardiac arrest? What if it is a structure fire?” Loeser said. “There is and will continue to be a debate on whether EMS [Emergency Medical Service] and fire should be separate. For the city of Fullerton, we are best served and most effective when providing that service to our citizens in an all-hazard fashion.”
Local resident Joshua Ferguson criticized the department for having two fire engines parked in front of City Hall. He asked, “Is this where they belong?”
Ferguson also pointed out that, according to the website Transparent California, many members of Fullerton’s fire department make over $100,000 per year. He said that many of Fullerton’s public works employees lost their jobs or took pay cuts over the past year, while firefighters got raises.
Fullerton City Council voted unanimously to bring back an agenda item within 45-60 days for Council to make a decision on whether to go with OCFA or to keep Fullerton’s fire department.
Chief Loeser again emphasized the urgency of making a decision.
“I implore you to allow me to move faster on this to make this decision,” Loeser said. “This is not grandstanding. I’m telling you the straight truth as the fire chief—we need to take care of this sooner than that.”
Mayor Fred Jung said that if he can get Council the information it needs sooner, “We’ll take it up sooner than in 45 days.”
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