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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

S.F. Fire Chief Defends Decision to Not Send Strike Team to SoCal Blaze -- Blames Firefighter Salaries, Benefits for Burning Through Too Much of Her Budget to Afford Equipment

Posted By on Wed, Sep 2, 2009 at 12:01 AM

click to enlarge Sorry lads. You're not going to SoCal.
  • Sorry lads. You're not going to SoCal.
Yesterday we reported that, despite the State Office of Emergency Services' pleas to California counties to send five-engine "strike teams" to battle the ongoing Los Angeles-area conflagration, the San Francisco Fire Department declined to do so.

Both Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and her deputy chief of operations, Pat Gardner -- who is in charge of deciding whether or not to deploy San Francisco strike teams  -- defended that move, claiming the city simply doesn't have enough spare rigs to send five vehicles south and still adequately protect the home front (the chiefs note that the city sent a single vehicle). "Our first concern is for the citizens of San Francisco," said Gardner. "I'd like to send a strike team; we have plenty of personnel to go. But right now we're short of apparatuses."

Following Sunday's pair of major San Francisco fires, a couple of rigs broke down, leaving San Francisco with only two spares. Gardner said quick fixes gave the city six spare rigs by Tuesday; firefighters union head John Hanley, however, said there were only three or four. Either way, that's not very many. The city is permitted to keep as many as 14 spares -- that's in a perfect world -- but Gardner said eight to 12 would be a smart number to have.

Ask whose fault this is and suddenly we're watching a San Francisco Fire Department version of Rashomon. Hanley blamed Hayes-White for "dropping the ball" and failing to replace aging rigs. Hayes-White, on the other hand, said the money simply isn't there -- and blamed the salaries and benefits of San Francisco's firefighters for eating up too much of the department budget for her to replace those rigs.

"We have a very large operating budget but 90 or 91 percent of it goes out to salary and benefits for our workforce," she said. "That leaves us eight or nine percent in non-discretionary funding."

When asked if workers should give up some money so the city can afford the rigs it needs, Hayes-White said "I think everything should be on the table at this point."

If you're scoring at home, labor blames management and management blames labor. L.A., meanwhile, continues to burn. But both labor and management will also happily point the finger at another entity -- city government.

Both Hayes-White and Gardner said that the department has been vocal about this problem to city leaders, but has not gained any traction. The $14 million the department requested for new rigs was not approved (if you're wondering, a fire engine costs around $425,000 and a hook-and-ladder truck runs a cool $750,000. When asked why he doesn't buy them used, Gardner noted that he's looked into it, but the requirements for a San Francisco truck are not the same as for those in flatter locales).

Hayes-White noted that on January 29, she sent a letter to the state informing the California Office of Emergency Services that San Francisco would not be able to send strike teams to fires outside the Bay Area. If the state wanted to send spare vehicles San Francisco's way and have S.F. firefighters man them, that'd be great -- but there aren't any spare vehicles.

Incidentally, the nine Bay Area counties participate in an agreement that each can send the others a strike team of five vehicles operated by 22 firefighters -- meaning that 40 vehicles could be sent San Francisco's way at a moment's notice in the event of a dire emergency. But the logistics of sending a convoy of trucks past Santa Cruz become oppressive, according to Gardner.

As SF Weekly reported yesterday, however, other nearby counties sent one -- or even two -- strike teams to Southern California. 

The chiefs had a number of explanations when asked the basic question "how come it's a problem for San Francico but not elsewhere?" Gardner noted that one of the companies the city contracts with to build its rigs went bankrupt. Hayes-White said that San Francisco is suffering a "dire" equipment shortage and funds to remedy it are "not something that has gone unrequested." She also noted that workers at other departments in the state have made wage concessions. Hmmm.

Finally, you don't need to be a political conspiracy theorist to note that many millions of registered voters are closely following the covereage of the SoCal blaze -- and San Francisco's refusal to send a strike team, for whatever reason, comes off poorly. What would happen if Mayor Gavin Newsom -- who is running for governor -- made a call to the fire department and weighed in on the situation?

Hayes-White says "I would advise him as his subject matter expert we would be leaving the city vulnerable."

Gardner, however, notes that "if the mayor had that decision, we would do everything we could to make that happen."

Our messages to Newsom's office to glean his opinion have not yet been returned.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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