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Alameda Firefighters Speak Out on Brownouts

Many of you who live and work in Alameda have been seeing posters, door hangers, and information pieces highlighting the potential decreases in Fire and Emergency services being considered by the City Council. The council is struggling with budget challenges that are indicative of the global economic turmoil, as well as the fallout of poor financial practices of years past. One measure that the council is currently considering includes a proposal that would “brown out” an essential piece of your first line of defense in case of an emergency. The Alameda Firefighters are working feverishly to educate the community about the impacts and risks that will undoubtedly place the citizens and visitors of Alameda in harms way.

It has been proposed, as an effort to reduce the operating overtime budget of the Fire Department, to close a Fire Truck or Fire Engine on a daily basis, whenever staffing falls below 27. The city proposal is being considered by the council, without adequate study of the impacts. The firefighters want the community to become educated about the issue, see the lack of due diligence by those making such recommendations, and voice their concerns to policy makers before something bad happens. The firefighters are hosting a series of “Town Hall” meetings to educate the community on exactly what is at stake. Please visit our website for details.

The firefighters have done their homework. In addition to compiling the necessary data and historical staffing reports paid for by the City, they have had an up to date analysis completed that illustrates exactly how dangerous “browning out” an engine or truck is. The bottom line is the Alameda Fire Department is currently staffed at the absolute minimum level for the services that they provide. Any cuts to first response equipment and staff will result in increased response times, moderate sized fires becoming major, and longer suffering for those experiencing a medical emergency. Response to natural disasters will be severely impacted and as we all know, we live in earthquake country that knows no season. The “big one” could happen at any time.

Many questions have been raised about the overtime firefighters work, post employment benefits, and where our firefighters live. I will attempt to set the record straight and provide understanding to those who think the firefighters are out to bankrupt the City.

Since 1997, the Alameda Fire Department staffs 5 Fire Engines, 2 Fire Trucks, and 3 Ambulances with 27 firefighters, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 1999, the Department began a phased implementation of Advanced Life Support First Responders and Ambulance Transport without any additional cost passed on to the community. In 2001, 2 allocated street level firefighter positions were frozen and unfunded in order to pay for a negotiated improvement to the retirement system. Overtime impacts were non existent. In 2005, 6 additional allocated street level firefighter positions were frozen and unfunded by City officials as a “Cost Saving Measure”. Baby boomers began to retire at a rate that recruitment and hiring could not keep up with. The Department was, and continues to be plagued with mandatory (forced) overtime that requires members of an understaffed department to work an additional 20% annually. Overtime costs began increasing, and by 2007, the Department incurred over 2.2 million dollars in overtime costs. The firefighters have been on record with City officials back to 2005 that these practices were not only fiscally irresponsible, but also dangerous. Injuries have risen notably since the City implemented the policy to run short, leading to more vacancies and you guessed it, more overtime. So please note, when you see the reported salaries of Alameda Firefighters (not Fire Managers), that number is likely to include at least 2 additional months of work in overtime dollars. It should also be noted that overtime earnings are NOT pensionable.

Firefighting and responding to Emergency Medical Calls is an inherently dangerous occupation. Firefighters have a 100% increased chance of contracting certain cancers, and are exposed to highly communicable diseases on a regular basis. We work in environments of extreme heat and stress, close quarters and conditions that can be described as “less than desirable”. Sometimes these increased risk factors and exposures are brought into the firefighter’s home. Currently, Alameda Firefighters receive post employment benefits that include healthcare for themselves and their spouse. The City pays for the healthcare plan until the retired firefighter reaches Medicare age, and after that, pays for a Medicare supplement plan at a considerably reduced rate. To qualify for this benefit, firefighters must have at least 5 years of service and have reached retirement age, or been retired out due to a work related disability with healthcare as part of their disability settlement. In Alameda, the average years of service from a firefighter are 27. In the past 15 years, 1 employee of the Fire Department received the post employment benefit of retiree healthcare with only 5 years and 1 month of service to the City of Alameda. That employee was a Fire Chief who was hired from another department, and had spent the bulk of his career serving a different community.

When comments about how the majority of Alameda Firefighters do not live in Alameda arise, it needs to be pointed out that in reality there are 27 firefighters on duty and living in town everyday. They buy their food daily at the local grocery stores, clothing and personal needs from other merchants here in Alameda, and bank at local financial institutions. They support local coffee shops and restaurants. The firefighters also sponsor community events, youth sports teams, and many other charitable causes. The City sets the requirements for the job, and those requirements require recruitments to gather enough qualified candidates from all over. Hopefully, future Department leaders will place a priority on generating interest amongst local kids who one day would like to serve the community of Alameda and provide training opportunities to place them on the right path.

The Alameda Firefighters are not to blame for the City’s financial woes. Our pay and benefits are consistent with those of firefighters all over the State. In fact, recent salary surveys indicate that Alameda Firefighters are right in the middle of comparable agencies. It makes no sense to say that the firefighters want to “bankrupt the City.” That would be incredibly self destructive. Perhaps what it is time for is an independent audit of this City’s financial practices and the management theories being applied.

– Domenick Weaver, President
Alameda Firefighters

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