Future of Downey Fire Department is murky

DOWNEY - A divided City Council agreed Tuesday night to consider disbanding the Downey Fire Department in favor of L.A. County Fire. Mayor Roger Brossmer was joined by Councilmen Luis Marquez and Fernando Vasquez in supporting a request to ask the L.A. County Fire Department to conduct a study on the feasibility of the county taking over fire and medical services in Downey.

Brossmer and Marquez said the study would provide council members - and residents - with the data necessary to decide whether county fire service would be preferred in Downey.

"In order to have an intelligent conversation you need to have data," Brossmer said. "Why wouldn't I want to have that information?"

Mayor Pro Tem David Gafin, who dissented along with Councilman Mario Guerra, disagreed, saying that to commission a study is to "show a willingness to disband the department."

"Our citizens do not want us to go down that road at all," he said.

The study will take about 60-90 days to complete after L.A. County formally receives the request or 6-8 weeks after the city completes a lengthy questionnaire, said Fire Chief Lonnie Croom. The questionnaire involves high-ranking city staff and will take about 40 hours to complete.

Guerra spoke at length on the issue, disputing the fire union's assertion that residents were put at risk after a fire engine was taken out of service July 1 due to budget cuts.

The city's intention is to eventually put the fire engine back in service, he said, adding that fire department response times increased only 13 seconds since July 1.

"I am disappointed that after a 50-year marriage between our city and our fire department, the first time we have a financial situation they want to end the marriage," Guerra said. "(The fire union) is asking for a permanent solution to a temporary situation."

Steve Davis, president of the Downey Firefighters Association, said L.A. County could potentially provide better fire protection in Downey "during simultaneous emergencies." He noted that L.A. County already has 16 fire stations within a five-mile radius of Downey.

Meanwhile, the Downey Fire Department's budget is not the only thing that's shrinking - already short three firefighters last year, 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.

Still, residents at Tuesday's City Council meeting said they took pride in Downey having its own full-service police and fire departments.

"I am proud to live in Downey. We are proud to pay our taxes," said resident Lourdes Cotaya. "Quality over funds. We don't live in the southeast. We don't live in Los Angeles. We live in Downey."

According to the city charter, any change in fire service would need to be approved by voters by a 2/3 margin.

The City Council declined a request from the fire union Tuesday to place a charter amendment on the November ballot to repeal the 2/3 threshold, which was approved by Downey voters in 1998 by a 85 percent margin. The L.A. County Fire Department provided fire protection services in Downey until the Downey Fire Department was established on Sept. 10, 1957.

********** Published: July 26, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 15