Sunday, August 29, 2010


Misconception #1:
"El Segundo firefighters shouldn't make more than firefighters from a larger city like San Jose."

The size of a city has no correlation to compensation. It is not as if San Jose has 18 firefighters protecting an estimated 1,000,000 people. San Jose has 201 sworn personnel on per day. That equals 1 firefighter for every 4,975 residents.

I already talked about El Segundo staffing in an early post. El Segundo has a fluctuating population; 17,000 to about 100,000, with a maximum of 18 firefighters on per day. So, lets understand both: 18 firefighters for 17,000 population, comes to 1 firefighter for every 944 residents. 18 firefighters for 100,000 population, comes to 1 firefighter for every 5,555 residents.

The Fire Chief and the City decided, taking into consideration the high volatility of El Segundo, to staff at 19 to meet the demand (according to this math one may even wonder why more firefighters are not on duty). Due to El Segundo's unique nature and well documented influx of population, a prudent person can understand why 19 fire personnel is recommended. (Currently, the fire department has been slashed to 18 per day and running down to 14.)

Just because San Jose is a bigger city does not make it a more demanding job and deserving of higher compensation in relation to a smaller city. Anyone who says different is selling nothing more than cheap propaganda with malicious intent.

Misconception #2:
"San Diego residents don't pay for trash either."

"In a memorandum released Friday, Goldsmith (city lawyer) laid out how the city could get out of the trash collection business at a savings of $34 million each year.

That cost would be shifted to single-family homeowners, who under an antiquated city law do not pay trash-collection fees — a law that doesn’t apply to condominium, apartment and business owners.

With private companies taking over the service, Goldsmith said citizens “would have to do what other cities have to do: Treat their trash (service) like the cable bill.” - San Diego Union Tribune

San Diego shares the same problem. They are in the process of making their residents pay for trash as well.

Misconception #3:
"The 1% increase in the UUT (utility user tax) tax adequately addresses the deficit."

Not even close. The tax will be mostly paid by Chevron, who in my opinion is the real political heavyweight in town. This meager increase from 3% to 4% will generate about 2 million a year and it has a sunset clause (in 2 years it will revert back to 3%). The residents are not expected to contribute, and the remaining 11+ million will come from the wages of city employees. This tax increase should be considered more of a political gesture than an answer to the problem.

Misconception #4:
"City labor groups demanded high salaries and that is the reason why El Segundo is in the state that it is in, they should take the cuts."

People want to demonize the city labor groups and use them as a scape goat for the city's revenue loss. What excessive salary demands? I am aware that the Fire Association's last contract was settled for an annual raise of 3.75 percent, but many conveniently leave out the fact that incentive pay was considerably reduced in 2008 saving the city thousands of dollars. The Fire Association gave up percentage based incentives for flat dollar amounts. The City has already realized this savings and will continue to do so.

AND. It is also known and recorded that the Fire Association approached the City Council to give back their 3.75% raise in 2009 but it was flatly denied by the City. Recently, the Fire Association was the 1st group to agree to the 5% concession.

Misconception #5:
"Past Council's created this mess, only the current Council can solve it."

Carl Jacobson, Eric Busch, Bill Fisher, and Don Brann. 4 out of 5 were on the last City Council. However, Don Brann was the only council member that voted against the contract raises for the Fire Association, Police Association, Police Management Association, and Fire Management Association. 

Misconception #6:
"For nearly 10 years, the city's safety unions have asked for, and received nearly 100% salary increases with base salaries now close to or exceeding $75,000 annually.

It wasn't very long ago that El Segundo was one of the lowest paid departments in the South Bay. Over the years, through the 'meet and confer' process with the city and using comparable salary charts from neighboring cities, the El Segundo Fire Association worked with City Councils to bring up income, benefits, and morale.

75,000 is an average salary for firefighter here in the South Bay, it is nothing out of the ordinary.

Misconception #7:
"Seniors have a fixed income; any increased fees can have a major impact on quality of life."

Yes, I will agree on that singular point. But, regarding the insinuation to trash fees, I am pretty sure the Council said that trash fees could be waived for citizens on Social Security or if they meet other financial constraints.

Misconception #8:
"The fire union agenda seeks to abandon the city entirely."

This is the biggest misdirection and an absolute lie. The El Segundo Fire Association did not ask the City Council to merge with L.A. County Fire. The option was brought up by the Fire Chief (who is not in the Union) as a way to save the city money and maintain appropriate fire protection. The City Manager agrees that this is the best way to solve the problem now. The reason the merger is backed by the Fire Association is because the City Council wants to reduce the firefighters in the City from 19 on per day to 14. This means losing a fire engine completely, and jeopardizes the safety of the community.

This translates into reduced service and protection for the city as well as a more dangerous working environment for the firefighters (as explained in my first post). L.A. County Fire provides a better service than El Segundo at 14 firefighters. This was clearly stated and presented by Deputy Chief Osby and Fire Chief Kevin Smith. Why are the experts being ignored? Their concern is not control or political agenda, it's providing the best possible service for the City as a whole, and with the inevitable proposed cut of fire staffing, the better choice for the City and its' residents is to go County Fire.

But, many would have you believe that the firefighters want to leave because County benefits them individually. This is false. In fact, the merger may effect the majority in a negative way. Many will lose seniority, most will not get an increase in salary, many members may lose medical benefits that they have invested in for the last 20+ years, and for many it may mean being stationed farther away from home. So I don't buy this argument made by local spinsters. As the Fire Chief stated, L.A. County Fire can provide a better service to El saves 94 employees from being laid-off adding to the 12% California unemployment rate, keeps services and activities up and running in the city, and saves the City over 5 million a year. It seems like a no-brainer!

Misconception #9:
"The firefighters are making high salaries."

Since October of 2009, the City mandated that the Fire Department "run short" from 19 to 14 firefighters per day. This means that if a member calls in sick or has scheduled vacation, their position is not filled and the remaining members on duty are arranged accordingly to staff the apparatus. This was done to reduce 'leave replacement' (overtime) spending, which is the main topic of concern for many regarding the 2009 year end compensations.

Leave replacement pay has been practically wiped out. This means a 25% average drop in income for the firefighters since last October, 2009. They have currently agreed to give back 5% more August 1st, 2010. People have asked for 20-25% cut in firefighter pay. Well, they got it, and then some.

Many claim that the city unions are to blame for this financial mess we are in. This is typical behavior in times of crisis. I understand the issues from the inside and as a citizen I see them from the outside. I do not enjoy engaging in verbal warfare, but someone has to stand up to the falsifications, exaggerations and complete and utter misinterpretation of information. I am asking for a more prudent citizen to see through the blatant attacks; the finger pointing has to stop.

Monday, August 23, 2010

City Council Demands

The El Segundo City Council recently met in a closed session meeting last Friday, August 20. Entering this emergency meeting with the intention of balancing the budget without the benefit of the L.A. County Fire merger, they decided to ask all city labor groups for an additional 12.2% concession. This brings the total proposed concession to 17.2% for all labor groups.

In previous council meetings, the council has stated that to "correct this ship" all 3 elements that make up this city, need to contribute; residents, businesses, and city employees. So far, it would seem to a prudent person that the City Council is balancing the budget on the backs of the city employees.
  • Residents have had roughly a 4% increase in their water bill.
  • Businesses have agreed to accept a 1% increase in the UUT (Utility User Tax), from 3% to 4%, pending a ballot vote in November. (Still lower than the area average)
  • Employees of the city have given a 5% concession (or its equivalent in layoffs) and are now being asked for an additional 12.2% of their compensation.
Does this seem like a balanced approach? Are there other sensible revenue streams that have not been discussed or for that matter understood? Why is the City Council trying to "correct this ship" by threatening to lay off 94 employees and/or impose hefty pay cuts? What kind of standard will this set for neighboring cities?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Debunking Myths and Recalibrating Perspective

Some things you should know about your Fire Department and your City.

Why is appropriate staffing important? Not only does the right staffing level mean more services and a safer community, but it also means a safer work environment for the firefighters.

Why do so many firefighters show up at my front door when I call 911? 
  • When you call 911 the fire department gets a dispatch telling them the address and incident. Even the most basic medical or fire call requires multiple trained professionals. Fortunately, not many residents have experienced a 911 call. Not many have witnessed CPR being performed, or watched a patient being extricated from a mangled vehicle, or know what it's like running hose and equipment up 17 flights of stairs. These tasks demand teamwork.
  • By removing firefighters from the equation the work load is spread out amongst the remaining. This means it takes longer to do the same tasks, or in some cases certain tasks have to be omitted, which is inefficient, when every second counts.
Fewer Firefighters = Longer It Takes To Accomplish Tasks = Less Efficient

Why did the City decide to increase the fire staff?
  • El Segundo is no longer strawberry fields and local farms. Raytheon, Boeing (highest insured building in the world at $1 billion), Northrop Grumman, U.S. Air Force Base, multiple hotels, "Smokey Hollow," International Rectifier, 20+ high-rises and Chevron are just some of the most hazardous, volatile and dangerous target hazards that surround our community. These businesses along with the homes and apartment buildings are the fire department's responsibility to protect.
  • In 1998 OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) required fire departments throughout the nation to abide by the "two in/two out" rule. OSHA 1910.134 (g)(4) states that a minimum of 2 employees enter the IDLH (immediately dangerous to life or health) atmosphere and at least 2 employees remain outside the IDLH atmosphere for rescue purposes, if one or both firefighters inside need to be rescued themselves. (An IDLH atmosphere is a fire, hazardous material, confined space, any incident that requires respiratory protection). 
  • The national average is 1 firefighter to every 1000 residents. If El Segundo was truly a bedroom community of just 17,000, 17 firefighters per day would meet the national average. However, El Segundo is not average. With the undulating population (up to 100,000 during the work week) and the fact that El Segundo is a high risk city, the 19 firefighters, to some, might seem low. Over the years, fire management, the fire association and the city have worked together to give the citizens and businesses a fire department that can effectively protect the city.

Chevron and Northrop have their own small fire response. They each have 3 fire suppression members on per day. They rely mainly on the city's fire protection services. When El Segundo Fire responds, Chevron and Northrop relinquish incident control.

El Segundo Firefighters work what is called a 48/96. 48 hours (2 days) on duty and then 96 hours (4 days) off. Firefighters work 10 days a month or a 56 hour work week. The average job schedule is 5 days a week or a 40 hour work week. Firefighters on average work 80 more hours a month. That is 960 more hours a year. All the south bay city fire departments (manhattan, hermosa, redondo, torrance) work the 48/96 schedule. This allows for better interoperability. Regardless of a fire department's schedule (there are many variations) they all work a 56 hour work week.

Why then, do our firefighters work 48 hour shifts? The main reasons are:
  • 48 hour shifts actually reduce overtime costs.
  • 48 hour shifts decrease administrative costs (cost effective because administration only needs to keep records and deal with employee requirements for one shift per day rather than three shifts per day). 
  • Helps reduce commute times and allows employees more choices on where they can live and raise their families.
  • Increased productivity and project follow through on duty.
  • Reduces sick leave.

To dispel a common misconception, all firefighters pay for their own food, condiments, coffee, etc...

Currently there is no charge to call 911 or for any type of response to your home or business. There is a fee for TRANSPORT to the hospital. The city bills the patient's insurance (if they have it) and accepts whatever the insurance company will pay. If there is a monetary difference, the city does not bill the patient for the remainder and subsidizes the cost.

The El Segundo Fire Department has Captains and Engineers and even one Firefighter that carry a paramedic license, and they get compensated to keep that license valid. This is a great tool for the city because it allows them to activate an engine and their truck as paramedic assessments.  What this means is, when both rescue ambulances are on other calls, paramedics are still available for calls with appropriate equipment. We all know paramedic support is very important to us here in El Segundo. The more paramedics the better. There have been many instances where a captain or engineer have started ALS (advanced life support) procedures which led to positive patient outcomes when time was of the essence. Many departments, even ones in the South Bay, not only employ paramedics but require all their fire personnel to be licensed as paramedics.

Many have been given the wrong impression. The Fire Chief even admitted he mis-spoke when he said El Segundo only has one fire a year (he meant "BIG" fire, when it requires multiple resources or jurisdictions). This coincides with the staffing issue. At 19 they are adequately staffed to handle multiple calls. They are able to respond very quickly to fires, keeping many fires small and under control. We take for granted the benefits of a very well trained fire department. Listed below are the annual fire calls for the past 7 years according to NFIRS (National Fire Incident Reporting System):
  • 60 fires, $53,155 estimated loss (2009)
  • 69 fires, $977,981 estimated loss (2008)
  • 75 fires, $697,195 estimated loss (2007)
  • 63 fires, $716,275 estimated loss (2006)
  • 57 fires, $669,750 estimated loss (2005)
  • 57 fires, $11,010,683 estimated loss (2004)
  • 58 fires, $379,719 estimated loss (2003)
On average El Segundo has 62 fires a year (averaging the past 7 years), and on average has lost over 2 million dollars a year in estimated loss(I realize the spike in 2004 and the dip in 2009). Realize that most of these fires are not big, but are contained and kept small with a quick response and effective staffing (in addition to daily fire prevention). The 19 firefighters are your insurance policy. 

A 24/7 workforce, and the citizens expect that their fire department is always at the same staffing level everyday, every hour, all the time. Why? For the obvious reason that disaster can happen anytime (another reference to the City's insurance policy). The agreed staffing level for El Segundo was determined at 19 after examination of previous years' call volume and potential for major emergencies. On any given day a resident can be reassured that 19 firefighters are protecting the city. Because of this "constant staffing," overtime is a necessity. Firefighters call in sick, take vacation, get injured. These are inevitable occurrences. Therefore, a firefighter must be called in to replace the empty position. It is important to understand this applies to the fire profession as a whole with any type of schedule arrangement. Overtime is a direct result of the 24/7 service with a constant staff of firefighters.

Now the city of El Segundo has decided to "run down" from 19 to 14 firefighters. This was decided because of the economic deficit that the city faces. If the city does not have to back-fill a position then overtime is drastically diminished. Most of the money saved by the city up to this point has been from the savings from the reduced overtime in the fire department. My point here is to educate the reader that overtime is not a device created by firefighters to make more money. It is an obligation of the city to provide a consistent fire department force. It is a natural product of the system.