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Five Cities Fire Authority struggles to adjust after layoffs

Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Riki Heath talks about the recent layoffs.
Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Riki Heath talks about the recent layoffs. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated one of three sources of funding for the Five Cities Fire Authority. The authority's annual budget is paid by the Oceano Community Services District and the cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach.

The mood at the Five Cities Fire Authority’s Arroyo Grande station can only be described as somber.

The agency is reeling from the failure of a measure in April to create a special assessment district to save the jobs of six full-time firefighters, build a reserve for essential equipment replacement and improve dispatch services.

A majority of property owners in Arroyo Grande, Oceano and Grover Beach rejected the measure, and the six employees — nearly a third of the authority’s firefighting force — were officially let go last week.

Management also says it now will be unable to comply with certain workplace safety standards.

While the layoffs hurt the most, the authority also has faced other difficulties during the peak of fire season.

During a residential fire in Oceano on Aug. 21, a flurry of emergency calls from cellphones were routed to other agencies before the authority was notified and responded to the blaze.

Five Cities fire crews successfully extinguished the fire and no one was hurt, but the flames caused extensive damage to a storage garage and nearly spread to neighboring homes.

Following a review by the Fire Authority, Grover Beach police and the Sheriff’s Office, the response time was found to be within national standards, yet it prompted a new procedure to streamline cellphone calls to the Grover Beach Police Department, which handles Fire Authority dispatch services.

“Morale’s been kind of in the dumps lately,” Fire Authority Interim Chief Riki Heath said. “But we’re moving forward.”

Cutting back

Last week, the Fire Authority officially laid off six of its 21 total fire personnel, a painful but anticipated consequence of the failed assessment district measure.

The assessment — which would have appeared on property taxes and cost single-family homes a maximum of $66 a year — would have raised nearly $1 million annually.

In 2012, the Fire Authority was awarded a $1.2 million federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which allowed it to hire the three full-time firefighters and engineers, all of whom were then reserves.

Their last day was Sept. 22, Heath said, and all but one has returned to reserve status while they look for full-time work elsewhere. Heath said he has placed them on the Displaced Firefighter List, an online resource for fire departments looking to hire experienced firefighters.

The loss will affect those who remain, Heath said, with fewer bodies to staff the authority’s three stations and maintain facilities, in addition to responding to emergencies.

Previously, the Arroyo Grande station was staffed on all shifts with three full-time personnel and a reserve firefighter, and the Grover Beach and Oceano stations were each staffed by two full-time employees and a reserve.

With the cuts, shifts have been shuffled, so each station has the minimum personnel to operate the engines. Fire engine crews typically have consisted of a fire captain, an engineer and a firefighter, Heath said. With the Oceano and Arroyo Grande stations down by one full-time employee each, the Oceano station is left the most burdened.

Staffing at the Grover Beach station will not change.

“We’re going to have to prioritize our duties,” Heath said. “But the public will not recognize any difference in service.”

Hard-pressed

The agency operates on a $3.7 million annual budget and serves about 37,700 residents.

Between Sept. 30, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2014, Five Cities Fire Authority responded to 107 fires and 2,154 emergency medical incidents, 16 involving the use of CPR by Fire Authority personnel, according to statistics provided by the agency.

That’s a nearly 10 percent increase in calls for fire-related emergencies over the same period in 2011-12.

Of the total 2013-14 medical calls, 3.6 percent required at least one firefighter to ride in an ambulance with a patient, which left a fire engine crew short a body. A duty chief will typically have to follow and retrieve the firefighter at the hospital and return them to the engine as quickly as possible, Heath said.

“Basically, we’re going to have to change our tactics on the ground. We’ll have to adjust,” Heath said.

But particularly concerning for Heath will be his agency’s inability to comply with a California Division of Occupational Safety and Health regulation dubbed the “Two In, Two Out” rule, which requires that firefighters responding to a nonrescue situation wait at the scene until there are at least four total firefighters before entering a structure — two on the interior and two outside for support.

With fewer staff at the stations, Heath worries about his agency’s ability to comply with the rule in a situation where every second counts.

“OSHA may frown on it, but we’re not going to wait,” Heath said. “Fires firm up each minute, which means they’re more difficult to put out and more dangerous. We’re going to go in and try to knock it out as fast as possible.”

In a rescue situation, the rule will be ignored entirely.

“If we think someone’s in there, though, the ‘Two In, Two Out’ rule goes out the window,” Heath said.

In addition to responding to emergencies, Fire Authority staff must maintain its stations and equipment according to state standards, as well as conduct commercial and residential inspections, weed abatement and administrative work.

‘Plan B’

The Fire Authority is trudging forward, thanks in part to a 2 percent bump in the 2014-15 annual budget that is paid by the Oceano Community Services District and the cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach.

They’re not giving up on the lost employees either, Heath said. He hopes that FEMA, which saw the value in funding the positions two years ago, will come to a similar conclusion once again.

“So far, Plan B is to reapply for the grant, but the application hasn’t become available yet,” Heath said. “Right now, we don’t know when it is going to come out.”

He added that members of the firefighter union have been very supportive of the tough decisions management has been forced to make.

“But yes, everyone’s a little bummed,” he said.

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