By Jane Jerrard
Published Tuesday, May 1, 2012
| From the May 2012 Issue of FireRescue
With shrinking budgets and the tough decisions that accompany them, many fire departments (and their communities) around the country are struggling to not only make ends meet, but to keep the doors open.
Last month, after 128 years of service, the Santa Ana (Calif.) Fire Department (SAFD) ran its last call and closed its doors, as it was absorbed into the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA). The department is one of many that have had to make this tough decision; however, the SAFD is discovering that consolidation isn’t all bad, and that when money is tight, identity and autonomy can be traded for job security and sustained services.
Ways & Means
The transition began when the city of Santa Ana discovered a $30-million deficit in its budget for 2013. Management Partners, a consulting company brought in to make recommendations for closing the gap, suggested that the city consolidate fire services to alleviate the costs of supporting its own department. And according to former SAFD fire chief Dave Thomas, the OCFA had submitted proposals to surrounding communities regarding consolidating, so the department knew that the OCFA was a potential “acquirer.”
Unlike other city services, “fire departments are in a position to do more regionalized work,” points out Keith Richter, chief of the OCFA. “We regularly train together and work together in mutual aid agreements; it’s not unusual for us.”
Discussions were held with all labor groups involved, and the idea was generally well received. Thomas explains that the SAFD firefighters’ group had been called in to negotiate terms for the past four years because of tight budgets, so they were well aware that this was likely the best option for their future.
The decision was made and implemented quickly. The city of Santa Ana asked the OCFA to put together a proposal in just 30 days, and that proposal revealed an annual savings to Santa Ana of $8 to 10 million. Plus, the OCFA would absorb every employee of the SAFD, with no layoffs. The city voted to accept the proposal on Feb. 21, and the official transition took place on April 20.
What Will Change
Although the SAFD no longer officially exists, the fire engines are still branded with the department’s name and logo. Also, all 10 fire stations in Santa Ana remain open, staffed by former SAFD firefighters—except that as part of the OCFA, they are working under a different model, with only 48 firefighters on staff daily as opposed to 63. (The remaining firefighters filled vacant positions within the county agency.) Under the OCFA model, Santa Ana has reduced the number of firefighters per engine, and relinquished medical transport to a private ambulance company.
When asked about the impact of the changes, Thomas, now a division chief with the OCFA, says, “There is a concern about the reduction of staffing. This is a new model for us, and we’ll just have to deploy differently.”
The real casualties of this regionalization: the identity and history of the SAFD, which, because it started as a volunteer department in 1883, pre-dates the official city of Santa Ana. The 128-year-old institution was the oldest organized fire department in Orange County; it has its own museum housed in the 60-year-old Fire Station #5. “The majority of [our firefighters] are happy, though some are sad because they wanted to finish out their careers [with the SAFD],” Thomas says. “But this change provides some security, with the overhead assistance and management support that comes with a larger system.”
Richter points out that struggling departments like the SAFD may feel relieved by having some resources and services ensured or restored. “Because of our size, we can capitalize on specialties, such as training and fire prevention,” he says. “We have dedicated experts in these fields, as well as mechanics who specialize in fire apparatus, inspectors who specialize in high-rises. Usually the first things that are cut [in struggling departments] are non-firefighting areas like these.”
Setting Trends, Sharing Advice
The solution found by the SAFD might not work for other communities and fire agencies looking for budget salvation—but it’s worth looking into. “For communities that are looking at budget deficits, this is definitely something you have to at least sit at the table and consider,” Thomas says. “This regionalized concept might not work for your situation, but look at how it could work for the department and for the community.”
Stewart W. Gary, fire practice principal at Citygate Associates, a management consultancy in Folsom, Calif., agrees that consideration of consolidation is valuable, saying, “I think it’s healthy. Everything is a business, and those businesses should have their costs analyzed. It’s a good practice to at least consider [consolidating] and look at your costs. The pieces don’t always fit; for example, you might find huge differences in pay and benefits [between the two departments].”
Thomas believes that what the SAFD has gone through will become more common. “I know the communities around us were watching [our transition]. They’re waiting to see if it’s a better way to deliver service,” he says. “The data is going to show the efficiencies and inefficiencies, and I think there will be a lot of efficiencies.”
The OCFA had a lot of work to do when it comes to incorporating SAFD staff and resources in a short time period. “The biggest issue [in the transfer] is the number of moving parts involved,” Richter explains. “We worked on agreements from two labor groups—as well as our company officer labor group, the city and the county. Santa Ana has their own dispatch center that has to be transferred over, and we’re basically hiring 200 new employees, so we’re going through background checks and physicals. We have a full-time transition team in place, and we’re putting together a manual on the process as we go, so we can use it when we go through this in the future.”
That manual is available for other fire departments and agencies to review. “The systems … we were [transitioning, such as our dispatch system] are common to all departments, so it should be valuable to anyone,” Richter says. (To obtain a copy of the manual, contact OCFA BC Kris Concepcion at 714/573-6028 or email@example.com.)
Given the success that the SAFD/OCFA is experiencing, it’s likely that more communities, and their fire departments, will continue to watch the consolidation unfold to see how it works, and if a similar solution might work for them.
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