(October 18) The cities of Upland and Montclair are finalizing a proposal for the partial merger of their fire departments, one that is aimed at reducing costs and intensifying firefighting resource capability and which will be presented to their respective city councils for consideration as early as next month.
Under the parameters being worked out, the command staff and administration of the two departments will become one and the service boundaries separating the departments will be eliminated. Each department will maintain its own identity and retain responsibility for its own firefighters.
At present the city of Upland employs 36 full time firefighters staged out of four fire stations. Montclair fields 24 firefighters and operates out of two fire stations. Previously, the city of Upland contemplated outsourcing options for its fire department in an effort to reduce costs, including considering contracting with the city of Ontario, the California Division of Forestry or the county of San Bernardino for fire protection service. Upland also 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 the California Division of Forestry, also known as 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.
In Montclair, officials previously gave serious consideration to the outsourcing of that 36,664-poulation municipality’s fire department, specifically the concept of dissolving the department in favor of contracting with the San Bernardino County Fire Department or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
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, what was a 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 2012, 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. In June of this year, police captain Michael deMoet was appointed to the position of director of public safety, following Jones’ retirement. de Moet continues to function in the role of Montclair fire chief.
The Sentinel has learned that Starr and Upland City Manager Stephen Dunn have formally discussed the concept of consolidating the management of their respective city’s fire departments and removing the jurisdictional barriers between the agencies. Discussions of the proposal involving the command staffs of both departments have proceeded to the point that Starr was able to put a protocol for the partial merger in writing.
Starr said there is general agreement between him and Dunn on the matter, as well as between the command echelon of both departments with regard to the proposal.
“It now needs to go to the bargaining groups (i.e., labor unions) so they can address whatever concerns they may have,” Starr told the Sentinel. According to Starr, the Upland firefighters will remain Upland city employees and the Montclair firemen will remain as Montclair city employees. Upland, which boasts a population of 73,732, pays its firefighters higher wages and provides slightly better benefits than Montclair fireman receive. According to Starr, because Upland has twice as many fire stations as Montclair, roughly one-and-a-half times as many firemen and operates a helicopter, Upland will pick up 64 percent of the command level and accompanying administrative costs under the arrangement, while Montclair’s share will be 36 percent.
Current Upland Fire Chief Rick Mayhew will become the new Upland-Montclair fire chief and his command staff will consist of two assistant chiefs along with battalion commanders sufficient to cover each station, augmented by administrative staff consisting of an executive assistant, a clerk and secretary.
Mayhew, who has been fire chief in Upland for eight months, said the merger “is still in the discussion phase. We are discussing what operational challenges we would have and what operational benefits there are.”
Mayhew said the fire unions might or might not have concerns over such a change taking place but that those were issues “do not impact us at the fire department administrative level.”
He said that it is “not correct” to assume that the partial merger would automatically take place, but that the plan was proceeding toward presentation to each city’s respective city council. He said that if called upon by the city council to carry out the merger of command and administrative staffs and eliminate the departments’ mutual service boundaries, he could do so with “absolutely no problem.”
He said that if both councils prove amenable to the idea, it could be implemented “sometime in 2014.”
Starr said he anticipated getting full input from the fire unions by November and the plan being previewed by the city councils in late November or early December. He said votes on the proposal could take place in the first quarter of next year, with possible implementation shortly thereafter.