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Council Curtails Fire Truck Service to Save Money: By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday October 08, 2004

Despite dire warnings from firefighters, the City Council Tuesday voted 6-2 Tuesday to shut down one of its two truck companies during evening hours unless the firefighters’ union agrees to a salary giveback. 

Also, as part of the vote which one councilmember derided as a “political ploy,” the council agreed to restore the truck company next July if voters passed a tax measure on the November ballot. 

Should negotiations between the city and the union stalemate, the truck company would be grounded from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. beginning Nov. 8. 

The firefighters are the only city union which has refused to surrender a portion of their scheduled salary increases to help the city balance a $10 million deficit for the current fiscal year. 

Closing the truck company would save the city $300,000—proportionately equivalent to the hit taken by other unions—by reducing overtime expenditures needed to staff it. 

From the reaction of about a dozen firefighters in attendance Tuesday, a salary deal appears unlikely. 

“I’m holding steadfast based on principal,” said Christy Warren, a city firefighter. “They’ve never negotiated with us in good faith. We’ve always been blindsided by them and now they’re using the community’s safety as a bargaining chip.” 

She warned that cutting the truck company put city residents at risk and would lower morale in the fire department. “We’re in crisis mode already,” she said. “If you cut a truck you don’t understand what you’re going to do to us.” 

Relations between the firefighters and the city have been tense since the firefighters signed a contract in 2000 only to watch as other unions won bigger raises. Their contract, which the city extended in 2002 to address union concerns, however, is unique in that it lacks a clause allowing the city to compel the union to accept a salary giveback. 

Most of the councilmembers remained resolute that the firefighters should follow the lead of other unions and accept a giveback. 

“Please, please, be part of the solution,” Councilmember Dona Spring told the firefighters. “We can’t do it without your help.” 

Councilmember Miriam Hawley said, “By not going along with everybody else, I think the firefighters have lost a lot of credibility. I’ve heard a few people saying ‘I don’t know if I want to support the firefighters, they don’t seem like responsible people.’” 

Councilmember Betty Olds took exception to Hawley’s comments. 

“Now I know this is political,” Old said. “It seems we brought this back up so we can beat on the fire department and get a few more votes for this tax.” 

Olds questioned why the council would wait until one month before the election to dedicate funds in fiscal year 2006 from the proposed Paramedic Tax to save the truck company. If the measure fails, the council, facing a $7.5 million deficit, plans to eliminate the truck company entirely next year to save $1.3 million. 

On Wednesday, now assured the proceeds would go to the fire department, the firefighters’ union voted to back the paramedic tax. 

Olds, who was joined in dissent by Councilmember Kriss Worthington, also feared that cutting the company would reduce service to her district, which is almost entirely in the fire-prone Berkeley hills. 

Truck companies are equipped with aerial ladders and life-saving equipment like “the jaws of life” that allow fire fighters to undertake rescue missions and get on top of fires to provide ventilation. The company slated for reduction is at Station 4 on Cedar and Henry streets.  

Firefighters at the council meeting challenged a report from David Orth, acting fire chief, that the city only received about 10 to 12 calls a year requiring both truck companies to be dispatched and that truck companies from Oakland could be respond to a South Berkeley fire within ten minutes. 

In the past month, firefighters’ union chief Mark Mestrovich said the city had two fires that required both trucks including a four-alarm fire last week in which a third truck from Oakland took 20 minutes. He added that often the trucks are dispatched simultaneously to different calls, leaving the city vulnerable if it had only one truck. 

After slashing several top administrative posts over the last several years, including a lieutenant, an assistant fire chief, and three fire inspectors, losing the truck company would be the first hit to response services since 1981. 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz tried to reassure the council that compared to other cities, Berkeley remained well-staffed. A city report released last week showed that Berkeley has fewer residents per fire station than Oakland, Hayward or Fremont.