Finally, voters in Berkeley have an opportunity to secure funding for our local fire and emergency services. Measure GG, on this November’s ballot, will once and for all eliminate fire station closures, fund paramedics at every fire station, and restore funding to our community’s disaster readiness programs.
For many years, fire protection services in Berkeley have been eroded. In 2004 a measure supposedly designed to fund fire services was rejected because there were not sufficient guarantees that the funding would be used only for fire protection and emergency services. Even local firefighters found it difficult to support such an uncertain initiative.
But Measure GG is different. Measure GG requires that all funds be used for fire and emergency services, and because GG requires a two-thirds voter approval, the funds are further segregated from the City’s general fund—a protective measure that is long overdue.
A system that has reached its limits
In the past, Berkeley had 10 fully operational fire stations. But years worth of budget cuts and department scale backs have left only seven fire stations to cover the entire city. Budget cuts have also forced reductions in the number of firefighters within the department. Today, the Fire Department has only 125 firefighters in a city which used to employ 186 firefighters.
However, even with those reductions our Fire Department will answer over 12,000 emergency calls this year. In Berkeley, firefighters answer more calls per fire station than any other department in Alameda County. Unfortunately, this is not a record to be proud of. It’s a signal that our community’s ability to provide emergency services has reached its limits. That’s why firefighters are asking the citizens of Berkeley to support Measure GG.
Minimal paramedic coverage
Berkeley remains the only city in Alameda County without full paramedic coverage. Today, paramedic teams are only available at three of the seven fire stations. There are no paramedic teams stationed in the Berkeley hills, and minutes are wasted when emergency medical teams are needed. Of the 12,000 calls firefighters will respond to this year, seventy percent involve medical emergencies.
Fortunately, Measure GG will fund full paramedic coverage throughout the entire city, making our community safer, and lowering response times for medical emergencies where paramedics are needed to save lives by an average of two and one-half minutes.
Citizen disaster readiness cut
For many years, the Berkeley Fire Department has been training neighborhood groups in Berkeley to respond to fires, disasters, light search and rescue, and medical emergencies in order to aid first responders during a crisis. These Citizen Emergency Response Teams (CERT) have even been supplied with caches of equipment so there would be zero lag-time during a crisis situation. We know that even a medium-size earthquake could cut the city in half, thereby limiting access to certain neighborhoods in the hills and in the flats of Berkeley.
Measure GG would restore funding the CERT program and enable our Department to continue training and equipping additional citizen groups. For more information about the CERT program in your neighborhood, please contact the Office of Emergency Services at 981-5605 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fire station closures
Due to budget constraints, neighborhoods throughout Berkeley saw their fire stations closed. As a firefighter it was hard to imagine taking that level of protection away from the families who depend on our community’s emergency services. As a life-long resident of Berkeley it was an illustration of what’s at stake for my community in this election.
Measure GG will ensure that our city’s fire stations remain open and fully operational. No longer will neighborhoods lose their fire stations in order to balance the city budget, and each one of us can rest assured that our emergency calls will be answered on time every time.
No, Measure GG will not pay for more firefighters in Berkeley. Like other cities in California, the Berkeley City Council, as well as the city manager have determined that it is far less expensive to pay existing firefighters overtime than to hire, train, and equip new firefighters in order to meet the demands of our community, in fact this practice saves the City of Berkeley upwards of $180,000 annually. Nor does Measure GG build more fire stations in Berkeley.
Measure GG simply funds what our community already takes for granted—emergency medical services, disaster readiness, and fire stations that remain open even when the budget gets tight.
Certainly I’ve heard the argument that we need to restore our emergency services in order to truly protect the citizens of Berkeley, but that those monies should be taken from the city’s general fund. Unfortunately, the Fire Department and the citizens of Berkeley are caught in the middle.
While political factions wrestle over the transfer of money within the city, our citizens are demanding real fire protection and real emergency services. I and every other firefighter here in Berkeley have dedicated our lives to providing those services, but we do need your help.
Each one of us knows the risks we take living on the Hayward fault, or having a home in the hills, or simply living in one of California’s most densely populated cities. And it is with pride that we live here in metropolis Berkeley. Hopefully, we take as much pride in protecting families and protecting our neighbors.
David Sprague-Livingston is president of the Berkeley Fire Fighters Association.