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Immediate Resumption of Automatic Aid in El Sobrante

I have placed the attached item on the June 20, 2006, City Council agenda to provide an immediate but admittedly temporary resolution to the four-year old impasse between the City of Richmond and the Contra Costa County Consolidated Fire District that unnecessarily puts our Richmond residents living in El Sobrante at risk.

I am not prepared to accept that there is a good guy or a bad guy in this dispute. I hold both agencies accountable for a state of affairs that is clearly not in the best interest of the people whom they are supposed to be serving. At the end of the day, this is a political dispute that involves egos, labor unions, money and power. County Supervisor John Gioia has been at the table from the beginning (the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors is the governing board of the Contra Costa County Consolidated Fire District), but I am not aware that a Richmond City Council member has ever participated, which is probably why this has never been successfully resolved.

I get far more information about what is going on from Gioia than I get from any Richmond source.

The good news is that City Manager Bill Lindsay believes we are close to a resolution and promised to bring it to the City Council by August 1. I do not want to undermine Lindsay’s efforts, but meanwhile, I believe the City Council needs to act immediately to make sure that Richmond is, for the time being, no longer an impediment to resumption of automatic aid in the El Sobrante Valley.

Also see  They Fiddle While El Sobrante Burns, January 14, 2006, and TOM BUTT E-FORUM: GRAND JURY SLAMS CITY AND COUNTY FOR IMPASSE, June 9, 2006.

What can you do? Hit “Reply to All” and urge your City Council members to support this agenda item.

Deaths spotlight fire agencies' dispute
Posted on Wed, Jun. 14, 2006


Local firefighters dreaded this day for four years.

On June 2, a fire near Richmond's jumbled border with unincorporated Contra Costa County killed three children. In the process, it exposed broken relations between neighboring fire departments that fought for years over money and turf, then stopped talking.

Nobody knows whether interagency cooperation would have changed the outcome at 908 View Drive.

But it would have delivered firefighters more quickly.

"The public does not care whose logo is on the side of the engine," said Keith Richter, chief of the Contra Costa Fire District. "They just want it to get there as quickly as possible."

Five years ago, the closest engines went to emergency calls in and around Richmond, regardless of who owned them, city or county.

But relations between the fire departments deteriorated, and in 2002, Richmond discontinued that agreement.

As a consequence, two non-Richmond engines sat in quarters while the June 2 fire raged, each a few minutes away. The first Richmond company arrived within two minutes, but the third took nearly 12 minutes -- it came all the way from south Richmond.

Needing no further incentive, Richter and County Supervisor John Gioia said this week that they will again ask Richmond to put aside differences and restore the "automatic-aid" pact while hashing out a new agreement.

Negotiations since 2002 were mostly memorable for Richmond's lack of participation. But city officials now say they are on the cusp of resolving the issue.

"We have been working on this for some time, and we have an agreement in principle," Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay said. "We have some operational details to work out, firefighter safety and dispatch protocol."

City Council members, many of whom now support restoring the pact during negotiations, say their main concern remains unchanged: City engines went to more calls in the county and San Pablo, a county client, than county engines went to calls in Richmond.

It was a lopsided arrangement. In 2001, the last full year that the agreement was in place, Richmond went to 1,169 emergency calls in the county area. The county reciprocated only 369 times.

"We were told in 2002 by (then-City Manager Isiah Turner) that there was a funding imbalance because Richmond was answering far more calls than the county," City Councilman Tom Butt said. "We were told that we needed to (cancel the pact) just for a little while to get them to negotiate in good faith. But it's dragged on for years."

But memos from those negotiations show that Turner and former Fire Chief Joe Robinson did not directly mention money concerns before the city canceled the pact, which had been in place since 1982.

Instead, they complained that changes made by the county made it too hard to work with its local stations.

Richter said the straw that broke the camel's back was the county's decision to provide its own emergency dispatching service for its two local firehouses rather than pay Richmond for the service, as it had done since 1994.

"The command staffs have tried to adjust and tinker with (the) dual dispatch system to make it work better, (but) it has become evident that (it) cannot be made workable because of inherent and unavoidable threats to safety," Robinson wrote in an August 2001 memo.

Richmond bought a new radio dispatch system in 2000. The hardware is incompatible with equipment used by other fire departments in the county, including the Contra Costa Fire District, which dispatches its own engines elsewhere in the county.

So Contra Costa added its two West County stations to its own dispatch service, and the Pinole and Rodeo-Hercules departments also bolted to county dispatch. Richmond lost revenue in the deal.

"I find it a little hard to believe that the county did not understand that a lot of the angst on our part had to do with us not getting compensated," said Richmond Fire Chief Michael Banks, who assumed command in 2004.

Although engines for all agencies carried both kinds of radios, Turner and Robinson wrote in several memos that miscommunication led to delayed responses.

County leaders made several offers to restore the automatic-aid agreement, including one offer to dispatch the Richmond Fire Department, but were rebuffed.

"We began to question whether they had any real desire to come to an agreement," Gioia said.

After the council canceled the pact, city negotiations turned more to money. The city floated a proposal for the county to pay Richmond about $1 million annually, a share of the fire department budget equivalent to the percentage of its calls that were county-related.

Richter, the county fire chief, said he never saw a written proposal but rejected claims that service to the county cost the city that much. He proposed a per-call fee that would have paid the city about $250,000 annually.

Richter never received a written response -- "They generally didn't respond to proposals, or present proposals in writing." But he was turned down during a meeting, probably in 2003.

A few months later, in early 2004, the city government nearly went bankrupt. Nearly all of its department heads left, including Turner and Robinson. Budget cuts gutted the fire department, forcing layoffs and station closures.

"We were like a patient on life support. We had to get our department back on course," Banks said. "We were not so concerned about automatic aid because we were just trying to re-establish ourselves."

Meanwhile, the county tried to entice Richmond with everything from offers of free services to annual payment. Richter even offered to hand over stations 69 and 70, along with their tax revenues.

The city did not bite.

But this spring, Lindsay, Banks and other city officials did warm up to the per-call payment fee pitched by Richter in 2003.

That cost formula has become the model for current talks, Gioia said. In 2001, the cost to the county would have been about $231,000.

"We cannot know whether automatic aid would have helped" save lives June 2, Gioia said. "What we do know is that West County residents do not care where the fire truck comes from. They want whichever one gets there fastest, and they have no patience for public agencies squabbling over life-and-death issues.

"This squabbling is done at their expense."

Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@cctimes.com.