Home Letter To The Editor How Much Is Fair for Firefighting?

How Much Is Fair for Firefighting?

Incidents of structural fires have been in significant decline in recent decades while the need for increasingly more expensive personnel to fight them has increased dramatically, as demonstrated by the following graph:

Contra Costa County, Letters to the Editor, Fires and firefighters
If this same scrutiny were to be applied to just suburban and rural fire departments, the parallel trend toward more medical, not fire related emergencies, would be amplified several fold. The fact of this matter is: Modern firefighters, particularly in non-urban settings, rarely fight fires. There are several factors contributing to this decline, chief among them are stricter building codes and heightened awareness regarding fire safety and prevention.
Yet these departments continue to swell in manpower, attendant salaries and benefits (retirement costs, in particular, are extravagant and poorly funded) and facilities, while their necessity apparently dwindles. Why?
Some feel the post 9/11 era has deified the ‘profession’ and allowed a ‘give them whatever they want’ sort of fiscal blind spot. Another, lesser known but rampant phenomenon, is the modern fire chief as ‘Empire Builder’. Combine this with a Board of Directors in tune with protecting and enriching this sacrosanct juggernaut, and you now have an outsized bankruptcy in waiting.
Contemporary ‘Fire Districts’ are, truth be told, ambulance services. This graph proves the point rather clearly . Even false alarms exceed actual alarms that involve a fire.
Contra Costa County, Letters to the Editor, Fires and firefighters
The concerned folks in Orinda formed a task force (2010) aimed at objectively analyzing the operational and fiscal soundness of the Moraga Orinda Fire District (http://orindataskforce.org/home) and their findings are essentially the same as the above information. They also conclude that the MOFD’s financial assumptions are, to be polite, overstated. Bankruptcy is likely in light of an exorbitant retirement scheme that their Board rubber stamped.
Why, then, are we dumping so many millions of tax dollars into ‘fire suppression’? Is it the post 9/11 canonization? Or is it crafty ’empire building’ by those in charge? Or a gullible electorate?
According to the Contra Costa County Employees’ Retirement Association, the follow list represents the top 10 highest paid retirees in Contra Costa County’s pension benefits system:
1 Craig Bowen Chief, San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District $283,958
2 Christopher Suter Deputy chief, San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District $260,980
3 Richard Probert Chief, San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District $249,374
4 Michael Sylvia Assistant chief, San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District $245,502
5 Victor Westman County Counsel $245,404
6 Peter Nowicki Chief, Moraga-Orinda Fire District* $240,924
7 William Maxfield Chief, Contra Costa County Fire Protection District $208,269
8 Allen Little Chief, San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District $206,697
9 Donald Hobart Physician $201,520
10 Warren Rupf Contra Costa County Sheriff** $201,123Simply stated, 7 out of the top 10 of the highest paid retirees in our county are fire department personnel. How can this be? Many are hauling in over a quarter of a million dollars PLUS benefits per year. In light of the work they actually do, this is outrageously inappropriate.

I am most certainly in favor of a solid Emergency Services Organization, but adamantly opposed to over blown fire departments that rarely fight a fire or finds itself in harms way, unlike their urban counterparts. MOFD rolls a fire truck in reaction to nearly every emergency call received. Even those that are clearly medical in nature. It is estimated that the cost of rolling out a fire truck and associated personnel costs the county in excess of $3000 per incident and that does not include the potential liability incurred just by having the machinery unnecessarily away from the safety of the fire station. The recent incident on Highway 24 where a MOFD ‘procedures’ essentially caused three fire personnel to be injured begs the question, what were they doing there? The incident did not involve a fire, was already off the road and under control prior to their arrival. Why was the scene exacerbated unnecessarily by fire personnel?
The entire structure and organization of these suburban Fire Districts need overhaul. Until we formulate and operate them in line with the actual need, we are wasting already scant resources. The ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ related to our losing our way in this regard certainly need exposure and appropriate corrective measures, then targeting and allocation of resources must reflect the actual need. A large fire truck, complete with three fire personnel in full regalia, that sits idling at the curb outside the home of a person being treated for a broken arm, a stroke or other medically based emergency, is a shameful waste of resources. Yet it is the MOFD policy to do this. Why?
If more than 95% of the 911 calls received are medical in nature, why are we not simply operating an ambulance service? The police department can add a few fire trucks and personnel, operate them under their auspices to handle the rare structure fire.
Is it now past time to revisit this fiscal black hole and find a solution the actually matches the need?
[Submitted by Fritz Stoop]

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