Ballot Measure Prioritizes End to Rotating Fire Station Closures

By Judith Scherr
Monday June 23, 2008 - 03:28:00 PM

The Berkeley fire fighters union has not publicly supported the disaster and emergency preparedness ballot measure proposed for the November ballot. 

But now that the city has prioritized the elimination of rotating fire station closures—except if the city were to face a fiscal emergency—the union has come on board, according to David Sprague, president of the Berkeley Fire Fighters Association. 

The emergency response and preparedness tax measure will be discussed at the council’s 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday. 

Also on the agenda, the council will be asked to approve a library tax measure, consider an advisory measure on the warm pool, approve the city’s budget, review a Police Review Commission report on evidence theft, and look at an auditor’s report on improving emergency medical call response and more. 

Before the regular 7 p.m. meeting, there will be a 5:30 p.m. closed session in the Council Chambers at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way on the city of Berkeley v. UC Berkeley Regents lawsuit and labor negotiations. The public can address the council before the closed session. 

The question of placing an emergency response tax measure on the Nov. 4 ballot has been before the council for several weeks, but council has repeatedly noted that the firefighters union was not completely behind it. The measure before the council on Tuesday makes the prioritization of keeping all fire stations open “more explicit,” Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna told the Planet Monday. 

The measure will include three funding components:  

• to prevent rotating fire station closures 

• to ensure paramedics and their equipment would be at every station  

• to create a disaster preparedness coordinator and fund community preparedness efforts and a radio system for emergency personnel that is compatible with either Oakland or Contra Costa County. 

Addressing the question of rotating closures, Sprague told the Planet the question “affects our [firefighter] safety and the safety of citizens.”  

The union also supports the addition of paramedics at every fire station.  

Berkeley Fire gets “a supermajority” of calls for health emergencies rather than for structure fires, Sprague said. Paramedics staff Berkeley’s three ambulances, but firefighters cross trained as paramedics do not act as paramedics when they are acting as firefighters.  

Paramedic certification takes two years, Sprague said. “A lot of Berkeley firefighters are certified” but don’t act as paramedics, he said, noting, “The majority of cities have paramedics on every engine.”  

The medical procedures paramedics are able to do include starting IVs, inserting tubes into the trachea when breathing is obstructed and administer narcotics, Sprague said.  

Paramedics receive a pay differential of 12.5 percent, according to the Human Resources Department Director David Hodgkins. 

The tax may not find favor with some citizens who pay close attention to the city budget. 

In a recent letter to the Daily Planet, Barbara Gilbert wrote about the “shockingly high” number of Berkeley public employees earning more than $100,000. 

Gilbert cites statistics found on the SF Gate website: About 25 percent of city employees (371) earned more than $100,000, she wrote. 

“Most of these high earners (75 percent or 282 employees) are in the police or fire departments. Considering that these two departments combined have about 450 employees, this means that almost 65 percent of public safety employees are in the top earner category,” Gilbert wrote. 

Sprague said the fire fighters will have to educate residents on the reasons for the high salaries. Overtime accounts for some of it. But, he said, it often costs less for the city to pay overtime than to pay the salary and benefits of additional firefighters. He said city staff is studying the question now, trying to determine the optimal number of new hires that would allow lower costs. 

And, as to the high cost of firefighters, Sprague said, “What we do is a dangerous profession. What we do takes a certain amount of money to take risks.” There is also the daily stress of being constantly woken up to work, he said.  

Sprague added that Berkeley firefighters earn the median of firefighters in other nearby cities. If the pay were less, the department would have to “scrape the bottom of the barrel” for its personnel. 

The measure presented to council Tuesday evening is intended to raise $3.6 million annually. It would cost homeowners about 4 cents per square foot of their houses and non-residential property owners about 6 cents per square foot.