County fire service in Downey?

DOWNEY - The union representing Downey's 58 firefighters and paramedics petitioned the City Council on Tuesday to consider disbanding the city's fire department in order to contract with the county for emergency services. While the city has yet to formally address the request, several council members are sounding off on the debate, which comes just 13 days after the city took a fire engine out of service in order to save an estimated $1.8 million this fiscal year.

During Tuesday night's council meeting, Steve Davis, president of the Downey Firefighters Association, asked the council to consider requesting a feasibility study on county fire services.

"It would state what services they can provide for what money," Davis said. "We just want the council to explore all options and make an educated decision by getting a free study done."

While Downey firefighters agreed to reduced medical and retirement benefits for the 2012-13 fiscal year, Davis believes removing fire engine 61 from Station 1 on Paramount Boulevard places an additional strain on the department.

"Our programs and services have been cut and depleted," he said. "We don't have a fire marshal, public education, fire preparedness, and there's a fire prevention bureau spot open."

Already short three firefighters last year, Fire Chief Lonnie Croom said the department just lost two more due to retirement and as a result of the city's new budget, four more positions must be eliminated.

With 10 personnel qualifying for retirement this year, Croom is hopeful the losses will occur naturally through attrition.

"I now have 18 firefighters on duty, down from 21," he said.

By the end of the year, the city's total fire personnel will be 54, a decline from 63 workers last year.

While Croom is confident Station 1 can absorb the work load in southwest Downey, he maintains that the loss of the large fire engine will most likely have a direct impact on the quality of service.

"Response times will increase," said Croom. "It's rare we have two fires at the same time, but it's a calculated risk."

Since fire engine 61 was taken out of service on July 1, the fire department has closely reviewed its response times each week.

"This is financially-driven, a sign of the economy," said Croom. "Hopefully, this doesn't adversely affect firefighters or the community."

Mayor Roger Brossmer acknowledged removing one of the city's four fire engines as an unfortunate cut, but a necessary one to close a nearly $11 million budget deficit.

"It's a difficult situation," said Brossmer. "Based upon the opinion of the fire chief we saved $1.8 million with limited risk. We did what we thought was best for the entire city."

Although hesitant to the idea of disbanding the fire department, Brossmer said the city should at least request a feasibility study from the county in order to make an educated decision.

"We pride ourselves on having our own fire department. Losing that is not something I take lightly," Brossmer said. "But I'm not afraid of data. I'd hate not to look at an option. During these tough fiscal times, we need to look at all options."

However, Councilman Mario Guerra is adamant in his opposition to a feasibility study, which he believes undermines Downey residents who passed a ballot measure in 1998 by a percentage of 85-15 mandating that any change in fire or police services must be approved by voters.

"I am vehemently opposed to disbanding our fire department. We have no evidence that it's going to be better," said Guerra. "If it's put on the ballot, I will vote against it as a citizen."

Guerra, who lives two blocks away from Station 1, thanked the Downey Fire Department for its service and the voluntary benefit reductions the firefighters union accepted, but he rejected the premise that contracting with the county would be safer and cheaper for the city and its residents.

"If response times go up dramatically, I'm open to do what's best for our citizens," he said. "Last year, there were 60 structural fires in District 2. That's 2.6 percent of our calls. 82 percent of the calls are medical. What we need are more paramedics, and we're looking at expanding our paramedics."

Councilman Luis Marquez said he is willing to explore county fire services as city officials attempt to reinstate the fire engine back into service.

"I'm very open to the study," Marquez said. "Our number one priority is to provide the best possible safety and response times. I absolutely love the idea of having our own fire department; I never said I wanted to go county.

"None of us can make that decision, it's a decision that has to be made by the voters, but doesn't it make sense for us to look into it? I agree with the mayor, we have to look at all our options," he said.

The Downey Fire Department partners with the fire departments of Santa Fe Springs, Compton, Montebello, and Vernon for mutual aid, but with recent and forthcoming cuts to services in each city, Davis maintains the county may be able to better serve Downey.

Currently, the L.A. County Fire Department has 16 fire stations within a five-mile radius of Downey that already respond to emergency calls in the city every year.

While opponents believe a contract with the county would mean the closure of a Downey fire station, Davis called the notion a "myth" and a "misconception."

"Citizens need to know, whether it says L.A. County on our patch or Downey, we're still going to come," said Davis, a Downey native. "My loyalty is to Downey, to my friends and the citizens there. It has to work for the city. If it isn't a good fit for the city and its citizens, we can't support it."

********** Published: July 12, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 13