For the past several meetings, the Fullerton Fire Department has been asking City Council to contract out fire services with the Orange County Fire Authority, citing problems with retention and financial sustainability with the City’s department. On October 18, Fullerton City Council voted to keep its fire department, and not to contract out with OCFA.
OCFA presented a proposal for fire and emergency medical services to City Council in January of this year. The City then hired contractor Management Partners to analyze the proposal against the current Fullerton Fire Department. They presented their findings to Council on September 6. Currently, 25 of 34 Orange County cities choose to contract with OCFA.
Keeping the existing fire department will cost less over the next 10 years—about $5 million in the first year and decreasing to approximately a savings of $1 to $2 million in future years.
On the other hand, according to a staff report, the department is down approximately 25% of their staff, and fire staff compensation is approximately 16% below market. According to City Manager Eric Levitt, “If we maintain the current department, we will see short-term volatility which could impact service levels. Long term it would likely even out, but in the next few years there will be challenges with service level and coverage.”
Mayor Jung asked Fullerton Fire Chief Adam Loeser about recent hires. He answered that the department has hired six firefighters who started on Monday (October 24), bringing vacancies in the firefighters ranks from 12 to 6.
Loeser developed a Proposed Roadmap to stabilize and rebuild the City’s department, which includes taking steps to increase pay for firefighters, purchasing two new fire engines and a quint truck—to replace depreciating vehicles, and adjusting deployment models.
Councilmember Ahmad Zahra, who voted to contract with OCFA, asked Loeser if there could potentially be a delayed response in a life-threatening situation should the city keep its fire department. Loeser said there could be. Under his proposed plan, stations 3, 4, and 6 would be reduced from four to three person engines.
Mayor Jung, who voted against the OCFA proposal, said that Fullerton’s finances are at risk, and that increasing costs would make things worse.
“While OCFA may be the silver bullet to many of our residents…the chief’s plan is not perfect, but it is a good plan, and I will trust it moving forward,” Jung said.
Zahra asked if the Chief’s plan is attainable. Loeser said it is but “the timeline I have laid out is probably best case scenario…We would have a herculean amount of work to do.”
“It seems that is more a hope than a reality,” Zahra said. “Our fire department is just one of many that is understaffed…I don’t see this as a fully sustainable and fully adequate plan of providing safety.”
Councilmember Nick Dunlap, who voted against the OCFA proposal, said, “We need to retain local control. And we need to work with the Fullerton Fire Department to make the changes and improvements that are necessary to sustain us for the long term.”
Mayor Protem Bruce Whitaker said that OCFA’s proposal “Doesn’t pencil out. We’re looking at a solution to an affordability problem by recommending we jump into a more unaffordable situation.”
During public comment, some firefighters and residents spoke in favor of the OCFA proposal.
Dan Lancaster, president of the local fire union, said, “This has been a long, arduous process. It is going to be a very daunting task to stay in Fullerton. We have a lot of boxes to check and they have to be checked in a timely manner. What we’re hoping from this council is direction to make a positive impact. Our goal is to keep our fire engines staffed and our stations open. The OCFA can guarantee that, but the Fullerton fire Department can’t.”
A local resident named Nicholas said that the fire department saved his life, and encouraged Council to go with OCFA.
Resident Diane Vena said, “Nothing is more important than safety. This takes precedence over budgetary concerns. I have watched money being found for other issues. Listen to the firefighters.”
Former City Councilmember Pam Keller said, “Our fire department is so low right now—a lot of guys are doing a lot of overtime. We need to have a stable fire department.” She encouraged Council to contract with OCFA.
Other residents spoke against OCFA’s proposal.
Parks and Rec Commissioner Eric Wehn pointed out that From 2019-2021, Fullerton firefighters got an average of an 11.5% pay increase, while other City Departments were cut or took pay cuts, including Parks and Rec. “I would disagree with the assertion that they’re suffering. I would much prefer to see the city retain control,” Wehn said.
Joshua Ferguson questioned whether councilmembers who had taken money from the Fire Union could make an independent decision.
Councilmember Jesus Silva made a motion to contract with OCFA. This motion failed.
Mayor Jung made a motion to keep Fullerton’s fire department and enter into labor negotiations within 30-45 days. This motion passed.
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