As we all know, the nation, the state and our city as well face uncertain economic times. This fiscal year, every Alameda city department (with two exceptions) was instructed to cut costs by 8 percent. Public safety (police and fire) were told to cut their budgets by 4 percent.
The accommodations proposed by the fire department include a reorganization of administrative functions as well as a reduction in overtime expenses, a cut that will occasionally (depending on the number of firefighters on any given shift out for injury, vacation, illness or training) reduce the number of staff at the ready for fire and medical emergencies.
Earlier this year, the city transferred money from the golf budget to forestall immediate cuts in emergency services, but now the fire department has used up the bulk of its overtime budget and so, starting at the end of January, it will begin a program to reduce overtime costs. Firefighters will not be called to work overtime when scheduled staff members are absent.
At Tuesday's City Council meeting Fire Chief David Kapler projected that this cut will impact service about 5 percent of the time. He estimates that there will be about 50 days next year when there will be one fewer ambulance on call. He calculates that there will likely be about 15 acute calls for help in which the response time of the second vehicle to the scene will be reduced — the first response vehicle in the city is a fire engine with a paramedic, the second is an ambulance with another paramedic. (The standard response for each medical emergency is two vehicles and five firefighters/paramedics.)
For cardiac events (which will likely be about half of those 15 or so acute calls) Kapler says the key to care is speedy arrival of the first response vehicle, which can provide on-site intervention. In cases of traumatic injury, quick transport to a hospital is crucial.
By Kapler's calculations, there will be seven or so instances next year in which lower staffing levels will increase hospital transport time. All in all, and considering that the vast majority of calls in Alameda are responded to in four minutes, the impact of this reduction seems relatively minor.
But to hear it from Alameda's firefighter union, the change presents a huge threat to public safety. "It's a burning issue," read the door hangers and posters distributed across town some months back, all featuring a picture of a raging fire along with the motto, "Your safety is in jeopardy."
Such a fear-based campaign is unseemly, especially from those whose job it is to protect us from fear. An alternate union response might have been to propose a modest salary or benefit reduction to help the city stay on budget while continuing to provide the existing level of service. This is solution makes particularly good sense given the number of Alamedans in other lines of work who have been laid off, furloughed or otherwise seen reductions in compensation.
Alameda firefighters earn more than $100,000 a year (not including overtime, which has brought many firefighters' wages into the mid-six figure range). The city also contributes about $30,000 per firefighter annually into pension. The cost to the city to provide full, lifetime medical benefits for retired firefighters and their spouses after five years of service (a benefit negotiated in 1990, before anyone could imagine how fast the cost of health care would rise) has also continued to balloon.
Yes, it is true that salaries over $100,000 won't make you rich in the Bay Area. But Alameda's firefighters earn a very livable wage, especially considering the security provided by pension and health care benefits. Instead of launching a fear-based campaign —"Your safety is in jeopardy" — they might have focused on working together. These are far from ideal times. All of us must compromise.
Eve Pearlman has two children in Alameda public schools. She is an active school volunteer and formerly served on the board of the Alameda Education Foundation. She also writes the Alameda Journal Blog. Look for news, impressions and opinion at www.ibabuzz.com/alamedajournal.