Treasurer’s Report
By Tom O'Connor, Treasurer
In the novel, The Perfect Storm, author Sebastian Junger chronicled the lives of those caught in the maelstrom of three huge storm fronts that created, as the title suggests, the “perfect storm”, a force of nature so huge and unfathomable that nothing in its way could survive.

Similarly, America now seems to be facing an economic “perfect storm”; a confluence of events so unlikely and ill-timed, that anybody at the wrong end of that storm seems doomed. The bursting of the “dot-com bubble,” the attacks of 9/11 and an impending war with Iraq have created a combination of events that have sent the economy reeling and unable to regain its footing. And at the absolute worst point of this economic “perfect storm” is the humble civil servant, always subject to the ebb and flow of the various economic cycles...

On a local level, there is also a “perfect storm” facing the San Francisco Fire Department. However, this “perfect storm” is twofold, for not only is the department about to fall victim to economic gale force winds, but it is also about to fall victim to a confluence of administrative events that will, in all likelihood, leave no one in its path unharmed. The “SFFD Perfect Storm” is composed of the merger of the Department of Public Health and the SFFD, a succession of short-term Chiefs, and a growing EMS hierarchy that has created a bureaucratic tempest of such magnitude that nothing, and no one, in its path can survive.

And we just almost witnessed the first casualties of the “SFFD Perfect Storm”... the forty-eight probies at the Division of Training. All forty-eight probies were recently informed that they would not be hired when they graduate in two weeks. The reason given? The Fire Department has too many employees because there was supposed to be surge of retirements in January.

But that was not the whole truth...the reason why there are too many employees in the Fire Department is because of the surge of lateral transfers into the firefighter/paramedic ranks. In fact, a class of 15 laterals was just sworn in two weeks ago ... while the class of probies was still in the tower! In fact just over three months ago, 23 more lateral paramedic/firefighters were sworn in … 38 new employees in the time this probie class was at the Division of Training.

But here’s the catch, the laterals can’t be laid off because of the “no layoffs” clause in our MOU with the City last year, where we agreed to pay 2.75% into our pension fund. Probies don’t count in this scenario though, because they haven’t been sworn in yet ... they are still “miscellaneous employees” hired only for the 16 weeks they are in the Tower. (As of our deadline, these jobs appear to have been saved by City Hall.)

What’s most galling though, isn’t just the fact that 48 potential firefighters, who quit other jobs to come join us, were almost laid off. Nor is the fact that 38 more lateral firefighter/paramedics have entered the department to help us with our EMS debacle (welcome aboard ... you’re in for a helluva ride). What’s most galling is that while we voted ourselves a 2.75% pay cut last year, the EMS administration went on a hiring binge to EXPAND an already doomed ALS engine and “one and one” ambulance program, all under the false pretense of patient care.

So now, while we make nearly 3% less per year, the Presidio’s tentacles are reaching even deeper into our department. And with the City looking to pare every budget down to their bare bones, the Presidio seems to be presiding over the only expanding services program in the City. With the expansion of the ALS engine program to the downtown corridor, where there are virtually no ALS calls, the Presidio is trying to signal their strength to the rest of the fire department… the bureaucratic “perfect storm.”

This “SFFD Perfect Storm” has been fed by a merger process that was untouched by previous administrations, essentially a chain of short-term Chiefs who correctly viewed EMS as the “third rail” of the fire department - touch it and you will get burnt. So they let the Presidio fiefdom run amok with their expansion plans, as well as a dramatically increase the number of management positions, until our current day predicament. With the City of San Francisco looking to balance the budget anyway possible, it makes no sense to expand the ALS program to even more engines, especially since over 200 paramedics have yet to finish their training to be fully trained firefighters.

Nearly 7 years into the SFFD/DPH merger, we still have not fully trained all of our medics. The “SFFD Perfect Storm” is of such magnitude that training, and firefighter safety, has become a secondary issue to the Presidio’s expansion goals.

The “SFFD Perfect Storm” is also powerful enough to actual undermine the entire goal of the SFFD/DPH merger, patient care. Outlying neighborhoods with longer response times for ambulances would be better served by having a medic on the engine, but that doesn’t figure into the Presidio’s reconfiguration of the fire department. The ALS engines must be located near their Achilles heel, the “one and one” ambulances.

The goal of the current expansion plans isn’t to get a medic to the patient’s side quicker, the goal is to match up paramedics arriving on separate rigs as soon as possible...this way the EMS administration further insulates itself from lawsuits, the only current measure of success the Presidio has for the merger. While response times go up for ambulances, nearly a 12 minute wait for an ambulance in the month of October, the number of lawsuits facing the department have actually gone down. (Plaintiffs and lawyers must be dazzled by all those shiny lights when two engines, one truck, one ambulance and one rescue captain respond to Grandma’s incontinence!)

What must be done at this point in the merger is a complete overhaul of the ALS configuration, one that emphasizes improved services to neighborhoods that have the longest wait for an ambulance.

This complete overhaul must also recognize that all of our medics have yet to be properly trained, something this department, no matter what it’s problems, has always considered sacred. “Probies”, though insulted and hassled, have always been trained by engine and truck crews. With nearly 7 years of paramedics in the fire department it is absolutely deplorable, and frightening, that we have only trained 18 medics on trucks.

What must also be done is try and find funds for more ambulances to handle the ever-increasing transport numbers the City is facing. Maybe if we sacrificed a few desk jobs, pencil pushers and “instructors” we could afford to buy more rigs and adequately staff them. We don’t need an “EMS Academy” that only teaches 4 firefighter students...we need paramedics out on the street transporting the sick and the needy.

And lastly, what we especially don’t need is the most critical component of the “SFFD Perfect Storm” ... the separate and untouchable command staff at the Presidio. The momentum behind this failed merger must be stopped, before this charade continues any longer. New management, with new ideas, must be installed as soon as possible. This management must recognize that both fire suppression and emergency medical care play an equally important role. For both roles all employees must be adequately trained and prepared, and the combination of those roles must augment each other, not detract from each other.

This merger can and will work, if only the department can find a leader for EMS with a foot in both worlds ... fire suppression and emergency medical care.


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