HomeCity NewsCouncil Favors Four On Engine After Hearing Facts, Public

Council Favors Four On Engine After Hearing Facts, Public

City Manager Will Recommend Adjustment To Fire Overtime Budget at January Meeting

The San Marino City Council clarified a motion it made in July, 2016 to give itself the discretion to staff San Marino’s sole fire engine with three or four firefighter/paramedics.

Though that decision was imposed in the form of language etched into a memorandum between the City of San Marino and the San Marino Firefighters’ Association, the council did not specify its desired staffing level.

At its Nov. 9 meeting, the council conclusively chose to direct Interim City Manager Cindy Collins and Fire Chief Mario Rueda to deploy a three or four firefighter/paramedic engine at their discretion and backfill absences to maintain a four firefighter/paramedic engine until a standards of cover analysis, or deployment study—evaluating SMFD’s operational practices—is completed in May, 2017.

With its latest motion, the city council also acknowledged the overtime expenses associated with both staffing levels. Collins estimated that a fully staffed engine would cost $519,400 for the current fiscal year, while an engine staffed with three firefighters would cost $406,400.

The city council budgeted $230,000 for the current year when it approved the budget in June, 2016, in the face of Rueda’s assessment that $230,000 would cover only half a year of overtime.

City Attorney Steven Flower explained the reasoning for the new motion, which clarified the council’s earlier motion.

“[The July motion] is not addressing the precise issue that you are being asked by the city manager to address now,” Flower said. “[The July motion] is a motion ‘to impose the following term and conditions that the city has the right to staff an engine with four or three,’ without giving direction to the city manager and the fire chief as to whether it should be three or four.”

Flower then read the new motion, which was restated by Council Member Steve Talt, who then repeated it at the request of Mayor Allan Yung.

The three recitations, Mayor Yung hoped, made the council’s direction crystal clear.

However, a lengthy hour-and-a-half discussion preceded the arrival of that final motion.

Rueda provided insights about the fire department to the council and community.

“We don’t know which calls we’re going to get any given day,” he explained, noting that a spreadsheet of calls made in 2015 by the SMFD spoke for itself. “We really don’t know, in our business, when the next crisis is going to occur.”

In 2015, the SMFD responded to 1,896 calls of which 846 – or 45 percent – were within San Marino’s borders.

Of the San Marino calls, two-thirds were medical. Of those medical calls, 78 percent were considered ‘Advanced Life Support,’ which, according to the National Fire Protection Association, demand a four firefighter/paramedic engine.

Twenty-two percent of medical calls in San Marino were considered ‘Basic Life Support,’ which demand at least a three firefighter/paramedic engine.

Rueda continued to answer the council members’ questions.

“Our resources are staffed for 24 hours. So if we staff that day with two people on the ambulance and three people on the engine, that’s our staffing model for that day,” Rueda responded, stating that he cannot selectively choose to send out three or four people on the engine depending on the call.

“It’s very difficult to have a different scheme each time,” he said. “These folks are very highly trained like a well-oiled pit crew and changing around and doing things differently for each call just begs mistakes.”

Rueda then explained that, “[overtime] is part of our deployment model, unless we overstaff. And overstaffing is just as expensive as overtime. It really doesn’t gain us anything.”

Collins added that overtime pay does not count towards public employee benefits provided by CalPERS, suggesting that paying overtime would be a less costly alternative to overstaffing.

Rueda also promoted the deployment study, noting that when it is completed “we’re dealing with facts, not just what I believe it is or what others believe it may be. It’s actually data that people can look at. It’s objective. And we can make educated decisions at that point.”

Contract Deputy Finance Director Ken Pun also helped to explain overtime pay amounts from previous fiscal years.

After a combined analysis of firefighter salaries and overtime pay, Pun said, the fire department has been under budget for the last three years.

In other words, he noted, that despite an increasing overtime budget, thanks to savings in salaries, the fire department was under budget by $13,852 in the 2013-14 fiscal year, $133,258 in the 2015-16 fiscal year and $97,145 in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

During the public comment portion of the discussion, residents, medical professionals and firefighters presented their views about firefighter/paramedic staffing.

With full force, the department’s boosters shared raving reviews of the San Marino Fire Department in front of the attentive city council.

San Marino resident Eric Wall, the father of a baby boy recently delivered by San Marino Firefighter Shawn Stewart, praised the fire department for its quick and complete response.

“We truly feel that four people worked non-stop to make sure everything went smoothly,” said Wall, who was present with his wife, Vivi Wahl, and baby boy, Rakesh.

Resident Amy Zhong also spoke in support of the fire department. Her daughter was saved from drowning last summer by Police Officer Victor Gee and support from the four firefighter/paramedic engine.

Firefighters Capt. Dominic Petta and Sam Benites both read letters of support from San Marino residents who said that a four firefighter/paramedic engine had a life-saving difference for them.

Lyn Riley, director of fire department quality improvement at the UCLA Center for Prehospital Care, firmly favored a four firefighter/paramedic engine.

“You have no idea how lucky this city is to have everyone on the engine be a paramedic,” said Riley, who provides medical education services to the San Marino Fire Department.

“You have a pit crew. You take one person out of the equation and you actually affect the outcome of that patient,” she added. “Let them be the best and do the best work they can with the personnel that they need.”

County Supervisor-Elect Kathryn Barger, a lifelong resident of San Marino, also expressed support for a four firefighter/paramedic engine. In a letter to Mayor Yung, she wrote, “I am concerned to learn that the City Council will be discussing reductions to the staffing of the Fire Department.”

She added, “Reducing public safety service levels is not consistent with the standard of service that is expected by our citizens. I worked in the campaign to self tax San Marino residents for public safety, and one of the compelling reasons residents supported the measure was because we don’t want to compromise on police and fire service!”

The council will again review fire department staffing and overtime in January, 2017 during its regular mid-year budget review, where Collins expects to present adjustments to the firefighter overtime budget.

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