Since I was a teenager and first started listening to fire department dispatch channels, the cities of Seal Beach, San Clemente, Buena Park and Westminster have all shut down their own fire departments and gone to the OCFA. Costa Mesa has been considering that move, and now so is Santa Ana:
The city's firefighters were initially stunned to learn that Santa Ana was considering outsourcing its 128-year-old fire department, but they have since come to view joining the Orange County Fire Authority as a possible route to a more secure future.I expect Santa Ana will make the move, and given the fiscal problems in Costa Mesa, they'd be wise to move to the OCFA too. I've lived in an area served by OCFA for more than 20 years, so I know the people of Santa Ana will get the same or better service than they're getting now, and at a significantly reduced cost.
Leaving the city – and its projected $30 million budget deficit – and joining the Orange County Fire Authority could relieve Santa Ana's firefighters from having to make annual contract givebacks and avoid layoffs, although it could mean a cut in pay for some.
In the past few years, the Santa Ana Firemen's Benevolent Association has agreed to defer pay increases, accepted staffing reductions and contributed more to their pensions, said Chris Roelle, president of the union representing 190 firefighters and 14 other department staff members.
A provision in the union's contract with the city requires that 63 firefighters be on duty at all times. That's down from 66 a few years ago, but it leads to firefighters racking up overtime. The Santa Ana Fire Department paid $7.1 million in overtime in fiscal 2010, compared with $3.7 million for the much larger police department. One fire captain earned $91,021 in overtime on top of his $96,348 in salary, while getting an additional $21,888 in premium pay, city compensation records for fiscal 2011 show.
That's "oppressive to our budget," said Santa Ana Councilman Sal Tinajero. "That is something that has to be changed."
The OCFA is expected to deliver its proposal for providing fire and paramedic services in Santa Ana by the end of this week. The proposal would keep all the city's fire stations and offer a similar level of service while saving the city "an enormous amount of money," said Joe Kerr, president of the union that represents OCFA firefighters.
The prospect of absorbing the Santa Ana firefighters has prompted the OCFA to delay holding a fire academy planned for 2012 to fill 46 vacancies. Still, the proposal is far from a done deal. It must be approved by the Santa Ana City Council and the OCFA's board of supervisors. Changes can be proposed from either side.
Consolidation eliminates a lot of duplicate overhead costs and it's in the best interests of taxpayers to trim city expenses wherever possible.