More than 100 local residents crowded into a meeting room at the Clayton Library on Jan. 23 for a heated discussion surrounding the closure of Fire Station 11, the city’s only station, expressing concern on how their families will continue to be protected.
County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Fire Chief Daryl Louder, and Pat Frost, the County Director of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) all addressed the issue, detailing their plans for keeping local residents covered when emergencies occur.
The Contra Costa County Fire Protection District – known as ConFire – closed four fire stations in central Contra Costa County, including Number 11, on Jan. 15, leaving 24 stations in operation to cover its 300 square miles. ConFire employs about 250 personnel, from fire inspectors to paramedics.
According to Louder, now that Station 11 has been “destaffed,” the team from Station 22 near the Crystyl Ranch housing development will work out of the Clayton station during part of the district’s peak call hours of 2 p.m. until 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The Clayton station will stand empty on Sundays.
He hopes this rotation of staff will be able to keep call response time for the area as close to the previous six minutes, 34- second average time as possible.
But already, the average response time to calls in the area has lengthened almost a minute and a half to what Louder estimates to be eight minutes, 18 seconds.
That extra 104 seconds may not seem like a long time. But according to the National Fire Protection Association, in cases of cardiac arrest, stretching response time to eight minutes for basic life support to be administered can mean the difference between a healthy recovery and permanent brain damage.
Frost said that time waiting for emergency personnel to arrive time can be bridged by anyone willing and able to perform CPR.
“[CPR] can be provided by a bystander, a law enforcement person with an automated external defibrillator device, a firefighter, or just the public, like someone in the home,” she said.
AMR to relocate ambulances
In response to the closures, American Medical Response is adjusting the locations where its ambulances are stationed to make them more rapidly available in case of a medical emergency when local firefighters are out of the area at other calls.
“I think it’s important for the community to understand that the EMS agency is working with the fire and the ambulance providers to ensure that fire is going to the most critical 911 calls,” said Frost. “The vast majority of 911 calls are not critical.”
AMR’s current area response time averages seven-to-eight minutes.
Frost said there were no plans to increase the number of ambulances to make up for the stretching of ConFire resources. “There is no ability for the county to add ambulances, because there is no funding for that. What we’re doing is we’re maximizing the efficiency of the ambulances we have.”
Clayton resident Deanna Jakel isn’t impressed by the new measures being put in place. She remembers when Station 11 was first built in order to ensure locals in both old and new areas of Clayton were protected.
“I’ll just make sure to have my heart attack between the hours of 2 and 8 p.m.,” she said at the Jan. 23 meeting.
Officials cast blame for the fire station closures on the $32 million decrease in revenues to the district from recession-fueled property tax decreases, as well as the failure to pass Measure Q last November.
Measure Q proposed adding $16.8 million annually to district coffers via a $75 increase in property taxes. Although Clayton was one of the few towns that failed to pass the measure – 52 percent of city voters said “nay” – the total countywide yes votes were in the majority, but fell short of the 66 percent supermajority vote necessary to pass tax increases in California.
Are pensions the problem?
Debate blazed as to the reason for the District’s money troubles.
“You guys are saying it’s a revenue issue, but it’s not. It’s a spending issue,” said one local at the meeting. Instead, pension spending was raised by many as the real basis of the problem.
New ConFire employees are offered a 2.7/57 pension package. This means that at retirement at age 57, they can take a pension in a percentage equal to 2.7 times the number of years they worked as a firefighter of their highest salary. That would equate to a firefighter who was paid $100,000 per year for his last of 30 years of employment being entitled to a pension of $81,000 per year, funded by a combination of investments made with their own salary contributions over the years, as well as money from the district.
Currently, more than $31 million of the district’s $99.8 million budget goes to pension and retirement healthcare costs. Records show well over 100 retired ConFire employees take pensions each year in excess of $100,000, with a few reaching over $200,000.
But County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff says public disgust at the pension figures – which led in large part to the defeat of Measure Q – is misplaced.
“I understand the public’s frustration and irritation that they’re being asked to pay more to get less,” she said. “We all feel that way. But … that’s one of the fallacies that was put forward, that if we just reform pensions, we don’t have this problem. Because pension reform can only affect new hires.
“Pension reform would not have kept the Clayton station open,” she said.
Jim Derickson lives with his family in the Clayton Valley Highlands, and works as an Alameda County firefighter. He sympathizes with both sides in the debate. “I can’t really tell you [whose fault it is],” he said of the closures. “One thing I noticed when I voted, right there it said it’s going to cost $75 a year. It sounded pretty expensive if you really hadn’t thought it through, if you’re not someone who used 911 a lot.
“All I know is if you no longer have these services, you won’t realize there’s a problem until you need it,” he said. “Then you realize what the problem is, and at that point it’s too late.”
District cutting costs
Mitchoff cited as examples of the District’s cutting of costs the two salary cuts agreed to by firefighters in the past two years totaling 10 percent, and a lowering in overtime expenses as the firefighters from the now-closed stations are sent to other stations where the existing staff had to work overtime hours to meet their communities’ needs. Based on overtime reduction alone, closing the four stations equates to $3 million in savings for the district.
“Measure Q was meant to get us through the hard times with enough financial resources until we climbed out of the recession and the property tax revenue started climbing again,” she said.
Although more station closures loom on the horizon – Pittsburg’s station 87 may be next – Mitchoff said she sees growth on the horizon via increased property tax revenues as the market recovers, and the possibility of future parcel tax measures.
“We need to look at a reduction in the supermajority,” she said. “If we lower the threshold, I think people will say they’re willing to pay for public safety.”