I am writing this in response to Jack Batson’s opinion column, “Public safety workers land big dollars,” in the Sept. 22 issue of the Daily Republic. Mr. Batson makes several accusations about Fairfield Fire Department members and Fire Department operations that I believe need to be addressed.
I served as a member of the Fairfield Fire Department for 28 years, 10 of those years as a chief officer. I recently retired as the fire chief of Benicia. I say this in order to lend credibility to what I am about to share about the members of the Fairfield Fire Department and Fire Department operations.
The column starts with recognition of a reduction in total compensation to Fairfield Fire Department members, but then inaccurately describes why the reduction took place: “This drop is undoubtedly due to the city’s frustration with the old firefighter game of income maximization.” The article goes on to explain, “To combat this, the city took out an entire crew and used them as substitutes at the regular rate.”
The fact is that fire departments throughout our nation have conducted concession negotiations on pay and benefits in order to offset the impact of our recent national recession. Locally, the fire departments in Vallejo, Benicia, Fairfield, Rio Vista, Vacaville and Dixon have all conducted concession negotiations in order to reduce fire department budgets and offset the impact of city revenue reductions due to the recession.
In addition, many fire departments have turned to reducing staffing and backfilling positions with overtime in order to save money while maintaining service levels. This strategy is cost-effective, but the increase in overtime is frequently used as a criticism of fire department operations. Unfortunately, the salary savings achieved by reducing staffing levels is quickly forgotten.
As for the elimination of the fire crew, Mr. Batson is correct; an entire fire company was eliminated from Station 37. Again, this was done to address the impact of the recession, but it has had a dramatically negative effect on Fire Department operations. Station 37 responds to approximately 40 percent of the Fairfield Fire Department’s total calls for service. Having two companies housed at this station gave some depth of coverage to handle simultaneous calls for service as well as distribute workload.
The other significant operational advantage of having a two-company fire station is that it allows for the response of specialized fire equipment, such as the aerial ladder truck.
Mr. Batson goes on to state how the Vacaville Fire Department members are paid more than Fairfield firefighters, with the implication that both are overpaid.
Firefighting is a unique profession; not only do members need to posses the knowledge and skill necessary to perform their duties, they also must have the mental discipline to act effectively and make good decisions under extremely stressful circumstances. Therefore, in order to attract and retain the best employees, pay and benefits must remain competitive in the job market.
Mr. Batson then compares annual response statistics between the Fairfield Police and Fire departments; police “91,000 incidents with only 20 complaints in 2012,” and fire “10,000 calls for service.”
I believe Mr. Batson is comparing apples with oranges. The biggest challenge to the fire service is time. In order to reduce loss to life, property and the environment, the members of the fire service need to arrive quickly, with a sufficient number of well-trained and properly equipped members. Every second can make a difference in medical emergencies, fire spread, property damage and environmental impact.
For those 10,000 calls, every incident required an immediate and appropriate response. For law enforcement, however, many calls for service can have a delayed response and be addressed when resources are available, such as vandalism, property theft, etc.
Mr. Batson then states, “most fire calls were for medical reasons, something that could be taken care of far more cheaply with upgrades to our ambulance service.”
I believe the partnership between the Fairfield Fire Department and Medic Ambulance Company provides an exceptional level of emergency medical services to the community. This partnership is a great example of cost-effectiveness, innovation and collaboration. It places at least one paramedic firefighter on every fire company in the city of Fairfield, which allows for advanced life support care to be provided quickly.
Mr. Batson then criticizes the response of “expensive fire trucks to routine calls for service.” The expensive fire apparatus Mr. Batson refers to is called a Type 1 Engine. Each fire station has a Type 1 Engine equipped to provide an initial response to multiple incident types, including fires, medical emergencies, vehicle accidents, technical rescues and hazardous materials incidents. With reduced staffing levels and for operational effectiveness, responding with this versatile piece of equipment allows each individual fire company to address a variety of incident types with the proper equipment and in a timely fashion.
In closing, the Fairfield Fire Department efficiently provides an outstanding level of service to the community through well-trained, dedicated and capable members. I believe praise rather than criticism is in order.
Steve Vucurevich is former member of the Fairfield Fire Department and former fire chief in Benicia.