It's been 13 months in the making, but a consultant's analysis of the Contra Costa Fire District finally was released this week and now awaits public feedback.
Here's mine: The 150-page "Evaluation and Options Appraisal" authored by Fitch & Associates is filled with enough figures, charts and graphs to obscure the fact that it offers no instant solutions for the district's financial problems.
When the county Board of Supervisors, acting as the fire district's governing board, commissioned a $460,000 study in December 2012, it clearly was seeking a more cost-efficient operating model. Strapped for funding by reduced property taxes and burdened by costly retirement benefits, the district has operated at a deficit since 2009.
The yearlong study, commissioned after voters rejected a $75-a-year parcel tax, dissects every aspect of the operation, from dispatch standards to response times to call volumes to time on tasks. But one thing is undeniably missing.
"I haven't seen how it's going to save us money," Supervisor Candace Andersen said.
She didn't say it dismissively. Andersen still finds value in the report as a "great starting point" for maximizing efficiencies in the district. Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, who never expected an instant fix, said "it shows us how to best use our dollars."
The report indicates that better protocol by dispatchers -- quicker identification of emergency needs -- will reduce the time between incoming calls and service assignments. Shorter "chute" time -- from when firefighters are alerted until the truck is out the door -- could further trim response time.
The report also breaks down demands on firefighters' time. ConFire, for instance, spends more hours providing mutual aid to neighboring agencies than it receives. And while 78 percent of all calls are for medical emergencies, firefighting accounts for 44 percent of time on task.
The only mention of staffing models comes in the "Options Going Forward:" 1) Stick with the status quo, which hardly seems likely; 2) Break up some of the 23 three-person engine teams into two-person medical units, adding response teams with no additional staffing; 3) Replace a percentage of retiring firefighters with lower-salaried EMTs. That would lower the payroll, but not for a long time.
Fire Captain Vince Wells, president of Local 1230, said there's useful information in the report, but that it oversimplifies things. The finding that response times barely suffered after four station closures measures only the first vehicle's time. Structure fires require five or more trucks -- how long till they arrive?
He's also troubled by breaking up engine teams, the option the supervisors seem to prefer, because it takes fire trucks off the street. "The other day," he said, "we had a fire in Antioch, a fire in Orinda and a fire in Walnut Creek. Emergencies don't always happen one at a time."
How much will operations change as a result of the report is anybody's guess, but it serves at least one important purpose.
"If we ever go back to the voters for another parcel tax," Andersen said, "I want to be able to tell them we've done everything we can to be more efficient."
The report is available at www.cccounty.us/ConFireStudy, and the public is invited to comment at a town-hall meeting 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Board of Supervisors chambers.
If you have an instant solution, speak up, because the consultants sure didn't find one.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.