Montclair Considering Outsourcing Fire Service

Montclair city officials are giving serious consideration to the outsourcing of that municipality’s fire department.
A confluence of issues in this city of 36,664 bordering Los Angeles County has led to the possible dissolution of the two-station Montclair Fire Department in favor of contracting with the San Bernardino County Fire Department or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as CAL FIRE.
Ironically, the dissolution of the department in some measure was instigated by members of the department and their union, who have now given second thought to wisdom of the outsourcing options as currently proposed.
Both the county and CAL FIRE proposals being contemplated by the city council would entail administrative, operational and salary realities that are not in keeping with those the firefighters had in mind when they made the request. At the same time, city officials have embraced the outsourcing concept as one which will entail the regionalization of fire service and an expansion of resources. As such, there appears to be significant momentum pushing the city of Montclair toward the dissolution of the fire department.
At the root of the move are financial causes, brought on by the downturn of the economy, dwindling governmental revenue and the conflation of governmental services. As a result of the state of California’s shuttering of municipal redevelopment agencies throughout the state, toward the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, Montclair laid off 10 employees as part of its effort to make up for its loss of redevelopment money. Throughout much of 2010-11, one of the Montclair Fire Department’s paramedic units was parked and the paramedics functioned from the department’s remaining engines, which stayed in service. Over the last year-and-a-half, the 27-firefighter department has lost three positions to attrition, and has not filled those vacancies, making up for the manpower shortage with overtime. In September, city manager Edward Starr, in a cost-cutting move that saved the city nearly half a million dollars a year in wages and benefits, elevated police chief Keith Jones to the position of director of public safety and gave fire chief Troy Ament his two-week severance notice.
Firefighters, concerned at the city’s parsimonious approach, looked to pick up whatever leverage they could. That included floating a proposal to have the fire department outsourced to the Los Angeles County Fire Department, where firefighters receive more generous salaries and benefits than do Montclair’s firefighters. And in another bid for political pull, the firefighters joined with the police union in backing two challengers, Sean Brunske and Richard Beltran, in the 2012 city council election in which long time incumbents Carolyn Raft and John Dutrey were standing for reelection.
Previously, the city of Upland approached Los Angeles County to see if its fire department would provide it with a fire service proposal. Los Angeles County turned Upland down because Cal Fire and LA County Fire have an agreement that Cal Fire will not come into Los Angeles County to seek contracts and Los Angeles County has agreed not to go into San Bernardino County or Orange County for contract agencies. For that reason, and because the San Bernardino County Local Formation Commission is opposed to having service boundaries cross county lines, Montclair did not approach Los Angeles County to provide a fire service proposal. Montclair did, however, consider mergers with the city of Ontario, the Chino Valley Fire Protection District, the county of San Bernardino and CAL FIRE. The county of San Bernardino and CAL FIRE responded to the city’s request for proposals. Both Ontario and Chino Valley declined, Starr said. Starr has now evaluated the proposals from San Bernardino County and CAL FIRE. In addition, there had been some discussion with the city of Upland about creating a joint powers authority to operate a fire department in both cities.
“Neither the county fire division nor CAL FIRE are contiguous with Montclair,” Starr told the Sentinel, “but CAL FIRE has a contract with Chino Valley and operates a fire station in Chino Hills that is engaged mainly in grasslands and wildlands fire suppression. They also have a service area north of Upland. The county’s closest fire station is in Fontana. Those service areas are not contiguous to Montclair but are close enough to provide normal and routine service.”
Starr pointed out that the vast majority of fire department activity is now emergency medical call related. He said that only seven percent of the calls the fire department responds to in Montclair pertain to fires.
“We have the equipment to serve the community and they have the ability to meet our needs,” Starr said. “This enhances resources. It doesn’t represent a denigration of resources. Regionalization represents a greater expansion of resources. They can provide economies of scale that make sense and might be appropriate.”
Starr said there is a better than even possibility the city will outsource the fire department.
“I have not polled the council,” he said, “but we have scheduled to have members of the council look at stations CAL FIRE and the county operate.  I have looked and carefully analyzed the proposals and have provided the council with my executive summary. I would not speak for the council but I heard positive reaction to some of the points. I would say it sounds like they will give outsourcing a fair consideration.”
Starr said the firefighters’ union was strongly in favor of outsourcing the department to the county of Los Angeles because “They would have greater opportunity for advancement there. Los Angeles County has more resources. They also offer a higher pay scale and more benefits.” But outsourcing to Los Angeles County is not on the table and neither Ontario nor Chino Valley, which would have been the firefighters second and third choices, responded, Starr said.
“The firefighters association wanted LA County,” Starr said. The association has since objected to at least one element of the way the San Bernardino County Fire Department does business. The law firm representing the firefighters association, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, wrote a letter to the city, Starr said, “protesting the county’s employment of limited term firefighter paramedics. The county hires new personnel to serve as  apprentices for three years, who are then hired  The association made clear in the letter it does not like the limited term firefighter concept. On the other hand, CAL FIRE pays less than the county but when CAL FIRE’s premium pay component is considered, that brings their firefighters up to Montclair’s standard.”
Having rued what they wrought, the firefighters may now take a stand against the outsourcing, Starr said, though they may not be able to change the city’s course.
“They may have the will to oppose this but it doesn’t appear they have the political muscle,” Starr said. “They could try to give the city council some grief, but I don’t think that will work. The only gauge I have is the November 2012 election campaign and its outcome.  The firefighters’ union combined with the police union to run two candidates against the council incumbents up for election. They did terribly. Both unions put a significant amount of money into the campaign. The one of their candidates who came closest had nearly 1,000 fewer votes than the incumbent who ran in second place. Their other candidate was off by 2,300 or 2,400 votes.  This council has been resolute in whatever direction they choose to take. There is no infighting. They are not divided. Whatever they decide to do they will stick to, whether it is to keep the fire department or outsource it. It will probably be a 5-0 vote.  I think the recession has told us a lot. Residents are no longer listening to public employees’ message that they are not receiving adequate pay and benefits.”
Chris Jackson, who heads the Montclair Firefighters Association, told the Sentinel, “All we are aware of is requests for proposals were sent out to the California Division of Forestry and the San Bernardino Fire Department. We made a request using the California Public Records Act to see the proposals and were denied. So, we do not know what is in the proposals or the terms, whether they mean downsizing or increasing the level of service or if this will be more expensive. We are waiting in the wings.”
Without actually seeing the proposal from CAL FIRE, Jackson said he is certain that agency offered “a lower level of fire service that would be a disservice to every citizen and business in Montclair. CAL FIRE is a wildlands fire agency that has no presence here. I know city manager Ed Starr wanted to look at them as an option, but the way they do business will not work here and it just does not make sense logistically. We are absolutely opposed to the California Division of Forestry. Their fire chief is in Sacramento. There would be no local control.”
The best option, Jackson said, would have been the Los Angeles County Fire Department. It was absolutely untrue, he said, that jurisdictional conflicts would prevent such a takeover.
“The Los Angeles County Fire Department is one of the premier departments in the country,” he said. “There is nothing to keep us from going with L.A. County. Both Pomona and Claremont are on our border and we have mutual aid with both of those cities and Los Angeles County. We wanted the city to look at all options and they did not do that.”
Jackson said the city had limited its invitations to San Bernardino County and CAL FIRE, bypassing both Chino Valley and Ontario, both of which he said would have been excellent choices. “Large entities can provide more services, more quickly” he said. “Those departments are right next to us. There would be no delays in transport time with either Ontario or Chino Valley.”
At the same time, Jackson said, Montclair’s firefighters are favorably disposed toward the San Bernardino County Fire Department. “With them, we would still have local control. Their fire chief, Mark Hartwig, an outstanding individual, has an office in San Bernardino. The county would offer greatly enhanced availability of services. They would be able to put a whole lot of boots on the ground and they offer resources that are more than adequate. San Bernardino County would be far superior to CAL FIRE.”
Starr indicated the joint power Upland Montclair fire department concept is still under consideration, but is on “the back burner,” he said. “Upland has its own financial issues.”
He said that if CAL FIRE or the county subsumes the fire department, all 24 of the current firefighters working in Montclair will be absorbed into the new operations.

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