Official: City ‘rolling the dice’ with fire dept. cuts

Appeal-Democrat

YUBA CITY, Calif. — In the aftermath of a decision to cut Fire Department staffing levels, Yuba City put on a brave face.

After hearing numerous comments at a January City Council meeting the cuts would jeopardize public safety, the city released a series of questions and answers to address the concerns.

The new staffing model, which will allow all five fire stations to remain open year-round but reduce constant staffing from 16 to 13, will improve public safety and response times, the city stated.

But behind the scenes, in an application for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant in excess of $750,000 to hire nine additional firefighters, the Fire Department said almost the exact opposite, at least according to some firefighters and community members.

"We feel the staffing reduction is a threat to the safety of our firefighters and the public," the application, written by Fire Chief Peter Daley, said.

The SAFER grant emerged as a key player in the aftermath of failed labor negotiations with the firefighters, which hinged on a dispute over a reduction in staffing requiring the department to send out some engines with two-person companies, rather than three. Numerous firefighters testified to the council that such a change endangers the public.

If the application succeeds, it would allow the city to hire additional firefighters. It was a common refrain from council members the grant would be a way to fully staff the department while seeking a more permanent solution.

But the seemingly contradictory statements made to the public and to the federal government in search of grant funds sparked the ire of firefighters and parts of the community.

"I'm appalled at the inaccuracies that the city has put forth. We are less protected, and the SAFER grant states it very clearly," said Doug Gribaldi, who lives in north Yuba City. "How can the city take money from the Fire Department and then cry poor to the federal government?"

The contract imposed on the Fire Department reduced its budget by $1.3 million, and the city moved about $800,000 of that money to the Police Department to assist in the recruitment and retention of officers, according to the application.

"We don't understand the contradictions. It totally demoralizes the guys," said David Newquist, a Yuba City firefighter for 20 years and vice president of Yuba City Firefighters Local no. 3793. "We know the truth. They're rolling the dice with our public safety. What if we don't get the SAFER grant?"

City insists public safety not affected
But the city and the fire administration insisted public safety improved with five stations open instead of four, even though it means some stations will have two-person engine companies.

Daley said initial response times improve with five stations open year-round. He also pointed out 85 percent of the department's calls are medical calls. Those calls demand a quick response and can be handled by two people, Daley said.

"When we have medical aid calls, I want two people there as fast as possible to keep life support going," Daley said. "I'll take the risk of having all five stations open instead of closing one. To me, 85 percent of the time, that will benefit the community."

The risk Daley referred to involves the fact two-person engine companies are demonstrably less effective than three-person companies for larger incidents, such as structure fires. A three-person crew can meet all responsibilities on initial response 25 percent faster than a two-person crew, the application states.

"Obviously, we're not as effective with two people as three, but there are things for those two people to do on scene before the others arrive, and they're only seconds behind," Daley said. "Would I rather have three? Absolutely. But, unfortunately, I was not given that option."

Daley said his preference is to have all five stations open rather than having three-person fire engine companies and closing one station every other day on a rotating basis.

"I'm an avid believer in three-person companies, but I won't fall on the sword for that to the point that I will close down a station to put three people on a crew when medical is 85 percent of our calls," Daley said.

Councilmember John Buckland said by opening all five stations year-round, the Fire Department's response time improved, despite the reduction in staffing.

"The reality of what's going on is that absolutely, with fact, we have not seen any person placed in a higher degree of jeopardy based on current staffing levels," Buckland said. "Subsequent to failed negotiations, everything I'm hearing is driven by a political environment and less based on facts and more based on supposition."

Firefighters skeptical
But Newquist wasn't convinced. He said the staffing reductions have impacted public safety. He said five times already the department has received calls without having any engines to respond.

The grant application states the reduction in staff from 16 to 13 "will cause service level changes on routine incidents. Where a three-person company can adequately handle a medical call, a two-person crew may become overwhelmed."

With two-person companies, more engines may be sent to a scene, which means less engines will be available to handle simultaneous calls. About 33 percent of the department's calls are simultaneous, according to the grant application.

Newquist also said the reductions have hurt response times.

"The numbers will show at the end of the year," Newquist said. "We're running our guys ragged, plus we're having to work so much overtime because they won't fill vacant positions."

When it was pointed out to Daley he was painting a much more positive outcome of the staffing reduction than he did in the grant application, he said he did try to outline a worst-case scenario in the application.

"When I write for a grant, I want to be successful in that grant," Daley said. "I want to paint a worst-case scenario, so I'm more successful. It's important to the council and to me to get those nine personnel."

Contradictions alleged in grant
Some firefighters expressed concerns over seeming contradictions in a city application for a federal grant and city communications with the public.

The city stated, in its question and answer documents for the public, "response times will improve." That point was also made by Councilmember John Buckland at the January meeting, who said, with all five stations open, "response times should go down."

The application identifies a goal of a response time of eight minutes, which is a standard from the National Fire Protection Association. With current staffing and without using overtime, the department never meets that standard, according to the application. It must be noted the city does pay overtime to its firefighters, although the department's overtime budget has decreased by 51 percent since 2009, according to the application.

If staffing were restored, the department would meet that eight-minute standard more than 80 percent of the time, according to the application.

"The additional staff will allow us to spread emergency scene tasks across more personnel and provide for faster, more effective initial response and quicker mitigation of the incident with a more positive outcome," the application stated.

Yuba City Fire Chief Peter Daley said response times have improved from before, when furloughs caused a rotating station to close every other day.

The city also said, to its knowledge, the new staffing model will not negatively affect residential insurance premiums. The application stated the opposite.

"ISO will not recognize a two-person engine company, and may result in increased rates for commercial businesses and residents," it stated.

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