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Council Reinstates Automatic Aid - Sort Of

Divided by old loyalties to the politically active firefighters union Local 188, the City Council followed a contentious debate with a vote on June 20 to direct Fire Chief Michael Banks to reinstate automatic aid with the Contra Costa Consolidated Fire District which serves adjacent areas in eastern part of Richmond.

The original motion had a date certain for implementation, which seemed appropriate given the two fire chiefs testified they were weeks apart on how long it would take. Although the adopted motion included the word “immediately,” it went on to define immediately as whenever the two chiefs can get it together. It should be noted that they have not been able to get it together for at least the four previous years.

Although City Manager Bill Lindsay had stated that he believed he could bring a permanent agreement to the City Council in the next six weeks, Councilmembers Marquez and Viramontes made it clear they wanted to start the negotiations all over again with a dramatically different plan designed to benefit Local 188.

Meanwhile, people are dying in fires located in that no man’s land where the two fire agencies’ jurisdictions intermingle and the closest company is not necessarily the one that responds.

Stories from today’s West County Times and San Francisco Chronicle follow:

Chiefs told to create fire plan
RICHMOND: Heads of departments are told to put aside differences and reinstate border system


Posted on Thu, Jun. 22, 2006

The Richmond City Council put the safety of thousands of West County residents in the hands of two fire chiefs whose departments have been at odds for years.

After a heated debate Tuesday, the council asked Richmond Fire Chief Michael Banks and Contra Costa Fire District Chief Keith Richter to iron out their last remaining differences as quickly as possible and reinstate a system to watch each other's backs.

The temporary agreement will assure that fires are responded to by the closest fire station regardless of city and county borders.

Within an hour after the council's vote, a 48-year-old man died in a trailer fire on San Pablo Road in El Sobrante near the Richmond border. It was the second fatal fire since three Richmond children died June 2 near the border with El Sobrante. The children's deaths put the aid agreement issue back into public debate.

Both county and city fire officials said an automatic aid agreement would not have prevented the four deaths, but this month's fatalities remind residents along the borders of Richmond, North Richmond, San Pablo and El Sobrante that they are not automatically protected by fire departments that may be within a few blocks and in one case, right across the street.

Banks said he wants to wait while some dispatch protocols are worked out to ensure firefighter safety. Richter said he is ready now.

Banks was reluctant to say how long an agreement will take, but said he hopes it will be within the next couple of weeks.

The council abruptly ended a previous aid agreement in 2002 because the two departments were squabbling over money, joint training, communications systems and turf.

Four council members voted against the motion on Tuesday because it did not give the two chiefs a deadline. "We have given direction to reinstate automatic aid, but we don't know if it's going to happen because we're leaving it up to two fire chiefs who have been arguing about this for years," said Councilman Tom Butt.

"This continues to be a disaster waiting to happen. I'm appalled we didn't give them time certain to have this done."

Politicians do not know how to fight fires and the automatic aid agreement is best worked out by fire professionals, said Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia. "I want an agreement as soon as possible, but I would rather have it take a little bit of time rather than have them rush into something that will fail," he said.

Old council disputes were apparent during Tuesday's meeting. Council members argued about a variety of long-standing money and safety issues.

Instead of supporting a potential long-term agreement hammered out by City Manager Bill Lindsay, Councilman John Marquez proposed an alternate plan in which the Richmond fire department would take over the two county-run fire stations in El Sobrante and San Pablo. The plan has long been supported by the Richmond fire union, local 188.

Gioia said the most important thing is to quickly get an automatic aid agreement in place to assure public safety and then decide on possible long-term solutions. Along with Chief Richter, Gioia is proposing the fire chiefs from all the departments in West County hold a series of meetings to develop a plan that will best serve the public.

"We have to take a comprehensive look at fire service in West County and come up with a recommendation," Gioia said. "And that agreement doesn't necessarily have to be automatic aid."

With fire season under way, the prolonged disagreement is making borderland residents increasingly uneasy.

"The open space grass is very high this year from the heavy rainfall," said Eleanor Loynd, president of the May Valley Neighborhood Council. "We are hearing about fires elsewhere in the state and in Arizona and there is a heightened sense that something could go wrong and it could be catastrophic."

Contact John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or at jgeluardi@cctimes.com

San Francisco Chronicle, June 22, 2006

The Richmond City Council approved a motion Tuesday night to immediately re-instate the automatic aid agreement between the Richmond Fire Department and the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, according to Richmond City Clerk Diane Holmes.

According to Councilmember Tom Butt, who made the original motion, Tuesday night's agreement has some problems. Butt said that one of his main concerns is that the council left it up to the fire chiefs of the two agencies to decide what "immediately" meant.

"The two chiefs have been talking for four years and haven't figured anything out," Butt said.

The Richmond City Council terminated the automatic aid agreement in 2002 following a series of disputes between the two fire departments. The agreement had been that the nearest fire unit available would be dispatched regardless of whether an emergency happened within the jurisdiction of the city of Richmond or Contra Costa County.

Butt said that Contra Costa Fire District Chief Keith Richter told the council Tuesday night that he could re-instate automatic aid that night. Richmond Fire Chief Michael Banks, on the other hand, did not put a specific date on when his department could be ready. He said that some dispatch procedures needed to be worked out before automatic aid could begin.

City Manager Bill Lindsay has said that the city and the county have had an agreement in principle for some time and that they have been meeting to work out logistics and financial matters.