Santa Ana may outsource fire fighting

SANTA ANA, CA &#8211 The city’s firefighters were initially stunned to learn that Santa Ana was considering outsourcing its 128-year-old fire department, but they have since come to view joining the Orange County Fire Authority as a possible route to a more secure future.

Leaving the city – and its projected $30 million budget deficit – and joining the Orange County Fire Authority could relieve Santa Ana’s firefighters from having to make annual contract givebacks and avoid layoffs, although it could mean a cut in pay for some.

In the past few years, the Santa Ana Firemen’s Benevolent Association has agreed to defer pay increases, accepted staffing reductions and contributed more to their pensions, said Chris Roelle, president of the union representing 190 firefighters and 14 other department staff members.

A provision in the union’s contract with the city requires that 63 firefighters be on duty at all times. That’s down from 66 a few years ago, but it leads to firefighters racking up overtime. The Santa Ana Fire Department paid $7.1 million in overtime in fiscal 2010, compared with $3.7 million for the much larger police department. One fire captain earned $91,021 in overtime on top of his $96,348 in salary, while getting an additional $21,888 in premium pay, city compensation records for fiscal 2011 show.

That’s “oppressive to our budget,” said Santa Ana Councilman Sal Tinajero. “That is something that has to be changed.”

The OCFA is expected to deliver its proposal for providing fire and paramedic services in Santa Ana by the end of this week. The proposal would keep all the city’s fire stations and offer a similar level of service while saving the city “an enormous amount of money,” said Joe Kerr, president of the union that represents OCFA firefighters.

The prospect of absorbing the Santa Ana firefighters has prompted the OCFA to delay holding a fire academy planned for 2012 to fill 46 vacancies. Still, the proposal is far from a done deal. It must be approved by the Santa Ana City Council and the OCFA’s board of supervisors. Changes can be proposed from either side.

Yet OCFA officials have responded with unusual alacrity to Santa Ana’s request for an expedited proposal. OCFA usually takes up to four months to complete such proposals. It will deliver Santa Ana’s about six weeks after the City Council voted Oct. 17 to request it.

The OCFA provides services to 22 of the county’s 34 cities, as well unincorporated areas, totaling about 1.4 million residents. Adding Santa Ana would make OCFA the firefighting agency for more than half the county’s population.

In the past two years, Brea, Fountain Valley and Costa Mesa have requested and received proposals from OCFA to absorb the cities’ firefighting forces and trim costs. In Costa Mesa, for example, OCFA proposed absorbing its 83 sworn and non-sworn fire department employees while delivering $2 million to $3.7 million in savings per year.

So far, the three cities have decided to maintain their departments, opting for local control over savings.

“That’s always a concern by all of the individual cities that have their own fire department,” said OCFA Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion. “Everyone thinks they are going to lose local control, and that’s not entirely true. We have a lot of mechanisms in place to maintain local control.”

In Santa Ana, OCFA is looking at the possibility of having a battalion chief and a division chief assigned specifically to the city, Kerr said. “That may mean the City Council of Santa Ana will possibly be dealing with their original fire chief cadre,” he said.

If the proposal goes through, it would be the largest transition undertaken by the OCFA. It could make the agency more attractive as other cities look to cut costs. OCFA officials tout savings from regionalizing services while offering extras like urban search and rescue, helicopters and hazardous materials units.

“Our goal is we have a very conservative fiscal policy,” Concepcion said. “We wouldn’t enter into a contract that would threaten the fiscal stability of other cities. For many cities that are looking for alternatives, we think that regional services is a good alternative.”

From The Orange County Register.

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