Fire chief takes on critics
El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts has spent a lot of time defending his district lately. Last year he oversaw the district’s response to a harsh 2011 Grand Jury report. In early September he stood before the Tea Party Patriots of El Dorado Hills with a similar defense, countering a highly critical presentation by retired EDS executive and fire district watchdog Dick Callahan in July which emphasized high compensation and growing unfunded liabilities for promised retiree benefits.
The district has recently endured another level of fiscal and operational scrutiny from challengers for two fire board seats in play this November.
The attacks came from different directions, but shared one central theme: excessive spending. Overtime-bloated compensation levels drew particular ire.
Callahan’s Tea Party presentation took budgeted salary, overtime and benefits and divided by the number of employees to deduce a cost of $198,346 per employee.
In his September response to the Tea Party, Roberts compared base compensation, including benefits, in El Dorado Hills to neighboring Folsom, Roseville and Elk Grove, and concluded that local firefighters make slightly less than their counterparts. The difference, he added, is that El Dorado Hills firefighters earn more overtime.
“If we choose to keep our stations open and fully staffed when someone calls in sick, we shouldn’t be penalized for paying overtime to do so,” he said. “Not when you are comparing us to neighbors who choose to decrease service.”
The Grand Jury identified an untimely 2005 contract as a root cause of the district’s recent budget problems. The Memorandum of Understanding with the firefighters Local 3604 granted cost of living increases totaling 16 percent between 2006 and 2008 while increasing engine company staffing to the four-person urban standard, shortly before the national economic nosedive.
The recession and housing crisis subsequently drove El Dorado Hills home valuations south by $1 trillion between 2008 and 2010, and ultimately cost the fire district $2.1 million in annual property tax revenues, according to district annual reports, which also showed wages and benefits rising from 53 to 84 percent of operations spending between 2006 and 2010, creating unprecedented budget problems for the historically flush district.
Roberts addressed the entirety of the criticism in a series of recent meetings with Village Life.
The district made up a projected $2.1 million shortfall by cutting $1.5 million in the salaries and benefits category, complemented by belt-tightening throughout the 2011-12 budget, the result of unprecedented cooperation between the board, the administration and the union, who jointly sacrificed to balance the budget without layoffs, station closures or brownouts, Roberts said.
The budget effort also produced a new union contract with no raises, a reduction of engine company staffing to the prior three-person level, workforce reductions through attrition, education bonus reform and a three percent employee-paid CalPERS contribution. The administration chipped in by cutting three battalion chief positions, asking the captains to take additional responsibility and requiring the remaining three chiefs to provide 24-7 coverage for traffic accidents and major incidents.
The statement that seemed to rile Roberts more then any other criticism over the last year was the Tea Party’s summation of Callahan’s presentation on their website, which claimed the district had “one chief to every three or four firefighters.”
Even before the attrition plan and resulting administration downsizing in 2011, the ratio was far greater than that, said Roberts. Afterwards, it’s 20.5 to 1, the result of eliminating three battalion chief positions and six line personnel in 2011.
Second on the list might be the Grand Jury’s statement that the district “overspent its budget,” which Roberts cites as an indication of how poorly researched the report was. Despite suffering major revenue reductions, “We never, ever, spent more than our budget,” he said.
Roberts also criticized the Grand Jury’s research into comparable district spending, displaying a chart of false information referenced in the 2010 report. Many of the Grand Jury’s recommendations were either in process or already complete when the report was published, he said.
Roberts publicly challenged Callahan’s data and conclusions during the July presentation and requested the opportunity to prepare a countervailing presentation, prompting a scolding from one official, who demanded that the chief’s data be independently audited.
Before Roberts could get onto a Tea Party agenda, Craig and Sherry Petersen announced their board candidacy, challenging not only the board’s spending but the district’s emphasis on fire suppression over medical response.
Village Life profiled the <a href=”last week” title=”Petersens’ Village Life profile” target=”_blank”>Petersens last week, and will feature incumbent candidates John Hidahl and Jim Hartley next week.
Callahan’s July presentation laid out the district’s total budget for 2011-12, roughly $15 million, and described its 2011 workload: 93 fire calls, including 22 building fires and 45 wildland fires, 1,408 ambulance calls and 741 “special duty” calls, which include snake removal, public assistance, plus false and canceled calls.
All told, the 2,284 calls in 2011 boil down to just 1.6 calls per 24 hour shift per station, he said.
Callahan described the workforce and some of its perks — 50 firefighters who work a “two on, four off” schedule consisting of two consecutive 24-hour days, during which time they eat, sleep, exercise and train between calls, offset by four full days off. The current union contract allows the equivalent of 54 paid eight-hour vacation days each year, he said, concluding, “The union has done its job.”
Roberts confirmed Callahan’s total call numbers, which were taken from the Alarm Statistics in the 2011 Annual Report, but said alarms do not equate to responses.
Move ups and out-of-district medical calls were not included, he said, but most importantly, the alarm statistics don’t capture the fact that multiple stations respond to a single call in many cases.
“Every call gets at least an engine and an ambulance,” he said. “Vehicle accidents get two engines, the ambulance and a chief. Any structure fire or wildland fire is all hands on deck.”
Comparing call counts to other agencies is misleading, he added. Call counts in some areas are inflated due to high numbers of nuisance calls. Prevention efforts and safety programs in Ekl Dorado Hills preclude many emergencies. Prevention programs in many other agencies have been cut back or eliminated completely.
“We’re in the call avoidance business,” he continued. “We serve an affluent, well educated community full of newer structures with better building codes and homeowners’ associations that keep their neighborhoods firesafe. We’re not going to get as many fire calls as other communities, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want us to show up when you call.”
“Bottom line, our job is to respond to all 911 calls. Whether it’s a snake in the yard, a bird in a tree, or the house is on fire, that resident is having an emergency. Our philosophy is ‘calls are calls.’ We treat each one seriously, as we think you want us to.”
Callahan cited an average salary, including overtime, of $132,327 for the current year, $190,769 including benefits, and said the numbers are slated to increase in the current budget to $137,394 and $202,087 respectively.
His presentation compared those incomes, which include overtime, to the salaries of teachers, $61,752; the average California firefighter, $69,880; and the median El Dorado County resident, $70,000.
Roberts concedes that firefighters who work a lot of overtime can make as much as $140,000 to $150,000 per year, “but they work their tails off and earn it,” he said.
To make that kind of money, a firefighter must work the equivalent of 90 to 120 8-hour days of overtime, he said. “That’s like working both days every weekend for an entire year.”
He said that critics of district have been too quick to compare local income levels, which include overtime, to budget-constrained agencies that reduce services rather than use overtime to keep stations open and fully staffed.
He questioned the Petersens’ comparisons which show a high El Dorado Hills cost per call and cost per employee, noting that many of the comparison agencies have taken cost and service cutting measures that El Dorado Hills is not currently willing to consider.
Sausalito is on the chart. “It doesn’t even exist any more,” he said. “They failed, and were absorbed by Marin County Fire.”
East Contra Costa is another example, having closed five of eight stations when a bond measure failed, reducing staffing and eliminating ambulances and paramedics. The district was recently partially bailed out by a FEMA grant.
“We haven’t cut service levels here,” said Roberts. “That’s the last thing we want to do, and as long as we can function within our budget, I’ll refuse to do so unless we hear otherwise from our residents.”
Callahan outlined the “3 at 50” CalPERS pension benefit, which allows firefighters to retire at age 50 with three percent of their highest base salary for every year they work, which resulted in an average annual pension for the six most recent retirees of $172,221.
He quoted statistics demonstrating that CalPERS is only 65.4 percent funded, with the “3 at 50 plan” underfunded by $3.5 billion. The district also has a separate $3.5 million shortage for unfunded retiree health benefits, he said.
Roberts agrees that the CalPERS system is currently underfunded, but points to the district’s $13-plus million unallocated reserve as a pretty good buffer.
He’s also confident that CalPERs will remain solvent, and will come back, either by demanding higher payments from agencies, or through better performance of its investments.
“We’ve paid everything we are supposed to pay, and not many agencies can say that,” he said. “Plus we’ve been setting extra money aside.”
Callahan accused the board of dipping into district reserves to the tune of $4 million over the last three years.
Roberts countered that the capital reserve was tapped two years ago for a new engine. “That’s how it’s supposed to work … We saved for it and bought it without borrowing money.”
Funds were also shifted from the general reserve to offset retiree healthcare costs, he said.
The Petersens took their critique further, asking why the district has only one ambulance despite the vast majority of calls being medical.
The demand for another ambulance “just isn’t there,” said Roberts. El Dorado Hills’ ambulance is only the fifth busiest of the eight and a half currently operating in the system, and is almost always available when needed.
When it’s on a call, the dispatch center moves other ambulances from either Folsom or Cameron Park closer to El Dorado Hills to minimize response times.
More ambulances are not the answer, he said. “There’s not enough business for the ambulances we have, which is one reason the JPA is losing money.”
The other is that insurance companies and Medicare have capped payment for an ambulance ride. The JPA currently pays the full cost of two fulltime firefighter/paramedics in El Dorado Hills, including overtime, “so we’re doing OK here,” said Roberts.
JPA officials have been meeting with Roberts to determine if the second position on the ambulance can be filled with a less costly resource.
Outsourcing the ambulance service is periodically proposed as a way to cut costs. Roberts doesn’t think county residents would like the response times they’d see from a private service. Based strictly on demand, the entire west slope would be staffed with four private ambulances at most, he said.
The Petersens also questioned the use of large, relatively slow fire engines as initial response vehicles for medical emergencies.
They point to district response times well below the stated 6-minute target, and suggest that sick or injured patients might get to the hospital sooner in smaller, faster “ambulance-like vehicles,” possibly dispatched out of smaller, less expensive stations deployed closer to residential clusters.
Roberts defended the six-minute target response defined in National Fire Protection Code 1710 as just that, a target, and an urban one at that. But El Dorado Hills, which averages just over two homes per acre, is far from urban, he said.
“We knew that, but still wanted to get close to the urban response times,” he said. “We used the six-minute target as a guide to place stations so that we’d get as close to that target as possible.”
The terrain and distances within district boundaries make a six-minute average response impossible, he said. “We go out Salmon Falls Road regularly in the summer; a 12 to 15 minute ride.”
The chief also defended the district’s response strategy, which places advanced life support engines staffed with three paramedics at strategic locations in the district. The goal, he explained, is to get the paramedics on site as fast as possible without jeopardizing the crew’s ability to respond to a second call quickly.
“The only thing the engine can’t do is take you to the hospital, and that rig is on its way, typically 2 to 5 minutes behind,” said Roberts. “By that time they’ve already started IVs and medications. The goal is always to stabilize the patient before transport. That takes five to seven minutes.”
The Petersens contend that heart attack and stroke victims require declotting treatments which can only be administered in the hospital, and that initial response vehicles should be faster and closer. Patient stabilization can be done in route, they contend.
“The flaw with that is you will still need that IV,” said Roberts, “and you need the medication or the defibrillator, the sooner the better. You can’t do those things when you’re bouncing down the road.”
He argues that ambulance-only stations and transport vehicles that are less than a full ambulance may be good strategies for agencies that can’t afford full stations and ambulances, but emphasizes that even full ambulances are single purpose vehicles, too limited for the gamut of emergency services provided in most fire agencies.
“It can’t fight fires, and if that medical call involves a tree that fell on you there’s no tools on that ambulance to get that tree off you.”
The ambulances are still heavy vehicles, which is one reason they perform only slightly better than engines in steep terrain. Roberts estimated that an ambulance and an engine that departed Station 85 on El Dorado Hills Boulevard simultaneously would arrive at Ridgeview Park 30 just seconds apart, despite the steepness of Wilson Way, largely because “ambulances aren’t that quick either,” he said.
Roberts concedes that a lighter response vehicle might arrive faster than an ambulance or an engine, but said “El Dorado Hills cannot, by law, add its own ambulance,” because the County Emergency Services Authority and its Joint Powers Authority have an exclusive contract to provide ambulance service on the west slope.
The $4 million replacement of Station 84 on Francisco Boulevard, north of Green Valley Road, is slated for next year. The Petersens challenge its size, at 10,000-square-feet, which is comparable to a much higher capacity firehouse currently being constructed in Alamo, with dorm space for eight firefighters plus bays for thee engines and an ambulance.
Roberts countered “We build fire houses to last 40 to 50 years, and there’s a lot more growth projected in 84’s service area in that time.”
The chief also defended the recent purchase of life preservers and wet suits, which Village Life called “scuba gear” in the Petersen profile.
The district takes numerous calls from Folsom Lake and the American River each year, he said. “We get boating accidents, jet ski accidents, and routine medical aids on the water.”
State park rangers are often on the lake, but carry only basic first aid supplies and are not paramedics.
“They’re often the ones placing the call for service,” he said. “They pick us up at the dock and take us out there. We needed a little training to be able to work in the water, and wanted wetsuits so we can do it in winter.”
“The board and administration have worked with our labor group and managed to save, be successful, plan for future and fund our liabilities,” said Roberts. “Most of this criticism is misguided.”