Sacramento firefighters’ union resists proposed staffing changes

Training paramedics for single duty would save city $6 million a year

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the June 2, 2016, issue.

With a city budget deficit projected to leap above $36 million in 2019, Sacramento city officials have been blocked from cutting costs to the fire department.

Councilman Jeff Harris, City Manager John Shirey, City Budget Manager Dawn Holm and fire Chief Walter White have recommended the Sacramento Fire Department transition to staffing its ambulances with single-role paramedics, who are trained to handle medical emergencies but not firefighting. The shift would reduce the number of hours worked by paramedics, who currently are on call for 48 hours at a time. It would also create an entry level position to aid in diversifying the fire department, officials say.

The move would save the city more than $6 million annually in staffing costs for its 15 ambulances, according to a finance department report. But Holm said any recommendation from the finance department has to be negotiated with the Sacramento Fire Department’s union, Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522.

And so far, the union isn’t budging.

Local 522 spokesman Roberto Padilla defended dual-role paramedics, saying they provide the “best service possible” to city residents.

He also rejected the notion of reducing his department’s fire engine teams from four firefighters to three, which is the norm in suburban cities like Elk Grove and Roseville, and would trim another $2.4 million from the city’s annual budget, according to an SN&R analysis of 2014 State Controller’s Office data.

Comparisons to departments that use three-person teams around Sacramento are “not fair,” Padilla said, because Sacramento is a metropolitan area. “We are in line with what is seen nationally,” he added. “It allows us to be more aggressive.”

The National Fire Prevention Agency recommends four firefighters per engine for a city with a population of 400,000 or greater. The city of Sacramento’s population is about 485,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

But such reductions are not unheard of at larger agencies.

In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown shaved $250 million from the California budget by decreasing state firefighter teams from four to three firefighters per engine.

Sacramento Taxpayers Association President Katy Grimes says there’s no public safety reason not to do that here. The higher staffing ratio, she contended, “was something being driven by their union and not their need.”

Padilla favored comparisons to the Oakland Fire Department, which also employs four firefighters per engine and has a similar population, of about 414,000. But Oakland, which employs 70 fewer firefighters than Sacramento’s 520, has also embraced other cost-cutting measures to maintain its four-firefighters-to-one-engine staffing ratio.

For instance, unlike Sacramento, OFD doesn’t operate its own fleet of ambulances, contracting instead with Alameda County to provide medical transports.

In another difference between the two cities, Oakland doesn’t dispatch a fire engine to every medical call, only the ones requiring advanced life support.

Deputy Fire Chief Mark Hoffman says that change was made within the last decade, after a national program trained Oakland’s 911 dispatchers to determine which calls require advanced life support prior to dispatching a fire engine.

“It’s not a perfect system but it works 99 percent of the time,” he said.

The moves helped Oakland decrease the number of calls its fire department responded to by more than 14,000 last year, according to the 2015 service log. OFD received more than 72,000 service calls, but responded to about 59,000.

The Sacramento Fire Department responded to more than 83,000 calls in 2015, according to its service log, roughly 80 percent of which were for medical transportation. SFD operates its own fleet of ambulances, which respond to medical calls accompanied by a fire engine.

Meanwhile, Holm said an idea to engage outside agencies to provide key services, such as ambulatory transport, might be considered as the city starts addressing shortfalls in its general fund.

“What we’re finding is that’s a costly model,” she told SN&R.

City officials previously tried staffing two ambulances with single-role personnel, through the 2013-14 approved budget. However, city council nixed its finance department’s attempt after the firefighters’ union objected to the unnegotiated “change in working conditions,” Padilla said.

Local union tactics to prevent a reduction in engine teams and single-role paramedics are “pretty stunning,” said Craig Powell, the president of Eye on Sacramento, a fiduciary watchdog. “It’s frankly shameful that this goes on in a city with such fiscal limits,” Powell said.

In a memorandum supporting the unsuccessful proposal, Harris wrote that the union resisted because “a dual-role system means more very highly paid dual-role medic jobs. While that may be good for the union, it absolutely impedes our effort to create long-term functional stability of our General Fund.”

Sacramento’s top mayoral candidates favored the status quo, however.

Darrell Steinberg said in an email that public safety and emergency response should be the highest priority in the city budget.

“The next Mayor has an obligation to be open to constructive ideas to make all departments of city government more efficient and effective without compromising the levels of service which keep our neighborhoods safe,” he wrote.

His opponent, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, said providing quality emergency medical services to residents is one of her highest priorities.

“So many of our calls require ambulances,” she said. “If all they can do when they get there is the medical piece then you’re kind of tying their hands.”

Ashby has received more than $284,000 in campaign donations from Local 522. She also received campaign donations from the union in her two previous bids for city council.

Padilla said his organization endorsed Ashby because she has supported firefighters and public safety measures while serving as a councilwoman.

“That’s how the relationship got started,” he said. “Our relationship with Angelique Ashby is a strong one.”

The union’s contract is up for negotiation in June 2018.

Other members of the city council didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Harris, in his memo, predicted tough negotiations if the city failed to move its fire department to single-role paramedics, like the ones employed by the unincorporated county’s Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

“If we adopt dual-role medic for the next two ambulances, there will be no incentive for the union to come to the table until their next contract negotiation in 2018,” he wrote.