Saturday, February 2, 2013

PLAYING WITH FIRE? Part 1 of 2



Station No.11


THE CLOSURES
 
California fire departments, like many in the nation, are either on the brink of bankruptcy or are facing such difficult financial hardships, that the closure of fire stations and the laying-off of firefighters is the only certainty facing these departments and districts throughout the State.  Take Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (also known as COCO Fire) for example, a "special" district serving various cities and unincorporated areas of Contra Costa County.  In a move to save money, the County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, January 15, 2012, ordered Chief Louden of COCO Fire to shut down three fire stations serving the cities of Lafayette, Martinez, Walnut Creek, and a partial shutdown of Station 11 in Clayton, the city's only fire station. Left in the wake are thousands of residents without adequate fire protection or timely emergency medical services and local politicians with shrugged shoulders and blank stares on their faces with no idea of what to do about it.



DOING THE RIGHT THING?

THE CITY COUNCIL MEETING


Concerned over the partial closure of my local fire station No. 11, the only station serving the residents of Clayton within a ten mile radius, I decided to attend the next city council meeting to see what plan the Mayor and City Council had come up with to deal with this disturbing situation.  Expecting to see a packed house, I was shocked to find that just five citizens showed up to protest the closing.  Interestingly, two of the gentlemen in the audience, in addition to myself, were retired firefighters; the other two I had never met. 

Even more stupefying to me was the realization that neither the Mayor, City Manager, nor the City Council had a clue as to how to proceed other than to setup some last minute Ad Hoc committee to determine the city's options.  Everyone of these folks knew at least a year in advance that these closures were an option on the table, set there by the Board of Supervisors, yet nothing was done to address the issue before the partial closing of No.11 actually occurred.

The hits kept coming when city manager, Gary Napper, declared Station No. 11 still an active station at the meeting.  Perplexing when you realize that fire personnel only man the station Monday through Saturday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.  This leaves the residents of Clayton without adequate fire protection from 8 p.m. Saturday evening until 2 p.m. Monday afternoon. 

To myself and other professionals in the fire protection industry, this is totally unacceptable.  In my opinion, not speaking for anyone else professionally, although I know most of my colleagues would agree, these cut-backs are reckless and irresponsible on the part of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, the Contra Costa Fire Protection District, and Clayton City Hall.

THE GROVE

DISCLAIMER

Before I continue any further, I must make several disclaimers. One, it is not my intention in writing this article to cast blame entirely upon Mayor Pierce, City Manager Gary Napper, or the rest of the City Council and Staff. As you are about to discover, the fact is there are many reasons and plenty of folks to blame as to why Station 11 has been left sitting without staffing 75 percent of the time.  I believe these dedicated citizens do an admirable and difficult job a majority of the time, after-all, one only has to take a few seconds drive through our downtown to see that Clayton is a very beautiful and special place to live.

Second, I don't pretend to be an expert on politics, union negotiations, tax matters, or running a fire department or a city.  I don't possess a B.S., B.A., or PhD., and as a matter of fact, I have never even done my own tax return.  Further, I have never run for political office, nor is it my intention to do so.  But what I do bring to the discussion is over 40 years of experience in emergency services, including 26 years as both as a firefighter and captain with San Jose Fire Department, a volunteer firefighter, dispatcher, police officer, and now a business owner dedicated to fire protection. 

That being said, I do believe our local politicians are certainly partially culpable for leaving our city without adequate fire protection and prompt medical services and I plan to hold their feet to the fire until it is resolved.  Now, if I can get the rest of the citizens involved before a major catastrophe occurs in our quite little bedroom community, then my objective will have been met and hopefully make Clayton a safe place to live again. 


THE PHONE CALL TO THE MAYOR

Mayor Julie Pierce
Wednesday, following the city council meeting the night before, I called Clayton's Mayor, Julie Pierce, in hopes of offering my services to assist in coming up with solutions to the partial closure of Station No.11.  Perhaps catching her off guard, (I originally called City Hall and instead of placing me in her voicemail, they patched me directly to her cell phone), I was met immediately with a very negative and defensive demeanor from the Mayor.

However, bad days do happen and I'm sure the Mayor has lost plenty of sleep over this issue, so even though I took exception for being treated as an adversary rather than a concerned citizen, the Mayor and City Council still deserve respect and a little slack over a very difficult situation.  Besides, as with most conversations, it wasn't so much the tone of what was said, but the content that really mattered and the Mayor had some very interesting things to reveal.

After introducing myself and giving a little a little of my background to the Mayor, I inquired as to what her future plans were for addressing the partial closure of our fire station.  For the next five minutes, Mayor Pierce went into a song and dance about the fact that there was just no money in the city coffers to effectively deal with the situation.  After a slight scolding for suggesting severance from COCO Fire, a suggestion by the way I never made or even brought up, she revealed that separation from the financially beleaguered fire protection district was not an option in her mind, and that city leaders had absolutely no control over what decisions the County Board of Supervisors or the fire chief made concerning staffing of fire stations.

Mayor Pierce then suggested that I take my concerns to the County Board of Supervisors meeting since it was they, and they alone, that were responsible for the reduced fire protection services to the city.  Of course I immediately pointed out that I didn't think myself and two other retired firefighters would have much influence, referring to the lack of participation and concern on the part of "Claytonians", as I found out they have been so affectionately referred to in the past. 

Lastly, I inquired of the Mayor as to when we as taxpayers could expect a refund from COCO Fire in lieu of the reduced services, to which the answer I received was, "don't expect any kind of refund now or in the future." 

THE MAYOR WASN'T KIDDING

Turns out the Mayor wasn't just blowing smoke up my chimney, there really isn't much her or the city council can do about fire protection in our city.  Even more shocking was to find that State law absolves them from even providing fire protection, including the ability to be sued for not doing so.

The Fire Protection District Law of 1987 

First, fire protection districts exist with the full backing of the California State Legislature.  One only has to go as far as the first section of a little known law as the "Fire Protection District Law of 1987",  or also sometimes referred to as the "Bergeson Fire District Law" to get the intent of law makers in the State: Section 13801 states: "The Legislature finds and declares that the local provisions of fire protection services, rescue services, ambulance services, and other services relating to the protection of lives and property is critical to the public peace, health, and safety of the State."

In order for the State to achieve this goal, certain powers and responsibilities were granted to fire protection districts and these are cited further in Section 13801:  "Among the ways local communities have provided for those services has been the creation of fire protection districts.  Local control over the type, levels, and availability of these services is a long standing tradition in California which the Legislature intends to retain.  Recognizing that the State's communities have diverse needs and resources, it is the intent of the Legislature in enacting this part to provides broad statutory authority for local officials.  The Legislature encourages local communities and their officials to adopt the powers and procedures in this part to meet their own circumstances and responsibilities."

As you can see from the parts I underlined for emphasis, the State Legislature has given fire protection districts like COCO Fire very broad and generalized powers, including the ever powerful ability to tax its customers, basically leaving cities like Clayton without much, if anything at all, to say about the services they receive, even though residents pay for those services, in the case of Clayton, 3.2 million dollars to be exact.

California Government Code Section 850

If something tragic should happen, and for those of you that regularly read my blog know catastrophic events happen everyday, don't plan on suing Clayton City Hall after the fact.  Section 850 of the California Government Code all but releases any liability of city officials governing a "general law city" from being sued for failure to provide fire protection by stating: "Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for failure to establish a fire department or otherwise to provide fire protection services." 

Further protection is granted by the law in Section 850.2 which states: "Neither a public entity that has undertaken to provide fire protection service, nor an employee of such a public entity, is liable for any injury resulting from the failure to provide or maintain sufficient personnel, equipment, or other other fire protection facilities."

So it would seem to me, in the usual style of our politicians and law makers here in California, that one law embraces the peace, health, and safety of the public, but has made sure no one is liable for failure to provide such assurances.

Not So Fast!

It turns out that even though the Legislature made sure you couldn't sue Mayor Pierce for failure to provide adequate fire protection services, the same is not true for the overseers of COCO Fire.  Section 13861 of the Fire Protection District Law of 1987 states in part: "A district shall have and may exercise all rights and powers, expressed or implied, necessary to carry out the purposes and intent of this part, including, but not limited to, the following powers:
(a) "To sue and be sued."

STAYED TUNED!

In part two, I will discuss what I believe are the real reasons for the financial mess our fire departments are experiencing all over the State and shed some light on what I believe can be done about it.

As always, stay fire safe and don't forget to support our first responders and our troops. 




 













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