Executive wants agency to absorb new costs

Another local fire department is encountering a lack of sufficient revenue to fund its full costs and now faces the undesirable option of trimming its workforce.

“This calls for a discussion by the board of fire resources and how we provide fire service. These costs simply need to be absorbed,” said Riverside County Executive Officer Jay Orr at the Tuesday, Feb. 28 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The Riverside County Fire Department will face a combined $14.4-million deficit over the next 18 months. Cal Fire Association 2881 negotiated a new contract in December. The four-year proposal authorizes raises for from firefighters to battalion chiefs in the range of 11 to 18 percent.

For the Cal Fire administration, the new contract addresses two concerns — salary compaction and turnover. Entry-level firefighters earn the minimum wage, now $10.50 per hour, on the way to $15. Also, vacancy rates for firefighters have ranged from 23 to 40 percent in recent years.

Fire Chief John Hawkins, at the request of Orr, presented some options to mitigate the new costs for the county at the March 7 meeting.

Before offering his recommendations, Hawkins wrote in his report to the board, “Staffing is expensive but what the public really pays for is firefighter availability for immediate emergency response.” His message is that fires are unpredictable. Therefore, to have fire protection available 24/7 requires paying the cost for that insurance.

Hawkins’ recommendations are projected to save the county nearly $12.2 million. A total of 42 positions would be eliminated, including 12 to shift a three-person unit to a two-person medic unit.

These units will have about 250 gallons of water, a small pump and paramedic equipment. They will be capable of providing paramedic service and light, first-in, fire suppression.

Hawkins stressed this was not an optimal response. “The alternate station staffing model of a medic patrol will be a reduction of service in the areas where it will be deployed and to the system overall,” he wrote.

The areas where this type of unit may be employed are rural or outlying areas, such as the Hill, Hawkins said. “But a type one engine has to be close or nearby.”

Station 63 in Poppet Flats would be closed, saving $1.8 million and reducing eight positions.

Some of the other major reductions include the elimination of the Hazardous Material Response team, and staffing adjustments at Station 41, North Shore.

Any staff reductions will require a 120-day notice, according to the Executive’s Office.

“We are trying to fill the budget hole as much as we can internally,” Hawkins said in an interview. “It’s a challenge.”

Also, to the staffing changes and reductions, Hawkins recommended that the county implement a program to recover its costs for emergency medical responses. He estimated that could generate another $3.6 million in revenues.

In his report, Hawkins included the documentation from 2012 when the supervisors adopted the three-person crew policy and the U.S. Department of Labor’s recommended policy of at least four firefighters on scene before entering a burning structure.

The Riverside unit of 2881 recommended that firefighters attend the meeting to urge the supervisors to maintain the current county policy of three-person engines and consider a shift to four-person units.