RIVERSIDE – The Board of Supervisors expressed general opposition to a proposal by Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins to shutter a fire station to cut costs, but was undecided on other money-saving measures, including de-activation of a hazardous materials unit and reduction of crew strengths.
“Public safety is still the number one priority of this board,” Supervisor Marion Ashley said. “We have to look at this really hard. We’ve got to find a way to meet our budget and maximize our public protection.”
Hawkins and his staff submitted a report to the board containing a list of actions that could net the county more than $10 million in savings.
The board is anticipating a potential $12 million increase in fire department expenses in the 2017-18 fiscal year based on a new four-year collective bargaining agreement with Cal Fire personnel that is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.
The county contracts with Cal Fire for services, relying on more than 1,000 state firefighters to respond to emergencies countywide.
The board is contending with red ink in the current fiscal year and is preparing for cost spikes that threaten to eat up the county’s reserves going into 2017-18.
Hawkins’ report recommended that the board consider shuttering the Poppet Flats firehouse, No. 63, in the Banning Pass, as well as de-activate one of two hazmat teams, as near-term cost-saving measures. The actions would result in about $3.2 million in annual cost reductions, according to the report.
Hawkins’ list also, unexpectedly, proposed a move away from three-person engines wherever possible, despite his preference – and a board mandate – for larger crews to handle emergencies.
Around a half-dozen people from the Poppet Flats and Twin Pines communities spoke out against the proposed firehouse closure, telling the supervisors that the idea would put lives and property at risk.
“The firefighters there have been able to strike quickly,” Ernest Wright, who has resided in the area for 30 years, told the board. “We had a house fire caused by kids playing with matches. It did not spread thanks to the quick work of the station 63 crew.”
According to Hawkins, call volume handled by the station is “low,” so it’s considered less essential compared to other sites.
The chief’s proposed cost-cutting model recommended the deployment of 2-person medic patrol units staffed by a fire captain or engineer and a paramedic to take the place of fully outfitted – and more expensive – three-person engines, which the board mandated in 2012.
The units would carry only 250 gallons of water and provide “light first-in fire suppression,” leaving significant fires to fully equipped crews and focusing on medical calls instead, the report stated.
The concept requires that the more economical medic patrol units operate within 10 minutes travel time of stations with type 1 fire trucks staffed by three or more personnel, according to the report. The downsizing effect could net $2.4 million, figures showed.
Other cost reduction measures would include consolidating squads and idling engines and slashing 42 existing and vacant positions, which might save about $3 million, according to the report.
“I’m open to reasonable suggestions that best serve the public,” Hawkins said.
Supervisors Ashley, Kevin Jeffries and Chuck Washington were unreceptive to the station closure idea, essentially foreclosing on the proposal before it could be debated during budget hearings two months hence.
“I believe the board needs to be prioritizing services,” Jeffries said. “We need to do budget triage, and we shouldn’t be asking the chief to walk in front of a firing squad before everybody else. Let’s look at what we have to resolve in our budget.”
County Chief Financial Officer Paul McDonnell replied that the Executive Office would spend the next several weeks getting “our arms around what we need to do with fire.”
“We need to dig deeper,” he said, warning that cost-cutting on some level was inevitable given the potential for a $160 million hole in general fund revenue in 2017-18, resulting mostly from larger state mandates.
Hawkins and his staff lastly recommended a revamped cost recovery strategy that would enable the agency to effectively bill individuals who receive paramedic and firefighter services during traffic accidents and similar emergencies. Officials said that private insurance companies will typically cover such expenses, and a rate of $390 per hour for crew time was reasonable.
According to the report, the fire department last year responded to 33,288 medical calls. Even if only one-third of those resulted in service payments, more than $4.5 million could have flowed into county coffers.