A Tale of Two Fire Departments
By Tom O'Connor, Treasurer
With the merger of the Depart-ment of Public Health into the San Francisco Fire Department nearly 7 years ago, there was supposed to be a more efficient city agency created, one that improved its level of service at no cost to the tax paying citizens of the City. What actually resulted from this ill-fated merger was a top heavy and inefficient “mega-department” that only delivers the same level of service at a much, much greater cost. And what has emerged from within this post-merger department, is an agency that is composed of two constantly dueling command structures, namely the EMS command located in the Presidio and the Suppression command staff located downtown.

These two command structures also have diametrically opposed goals…with the Suppression command staff focused on continuing to deliver services to San Francisco during economically challenging times, and the EMS command staff focused on expanding its bureaucratic turf and increasing its control of the


The dual command structure of the SFFD not only poses problems for operations in the field, but there are also rumors that the latest actions of the Presidio leadership appear to be an attempt to wrestle control of the entire fire department. Recent documents received have revealed that secretive websites are being run by the Rescue Captains of the Presidio in conjunction with certain EMS Chiefs, and that these websites have been constantly calling for actions against both the SFFD administration and the Union.

There also appears to be a coordinated effort made by the interim leaders of the newly formed San Francisco Paramedic Firefighter Association (SFPFA) and the EMS command to discredit the Department. Both the SFPFA and the EMS command have presented unfounded and anonymous accusations to the Mayor’s office, the media and the Department of Human resources, which seek to portray the SFFD as being ill-managed and out of control. And after the recent display made by the leaders of the Paramedic/Firefighter Association before the budget committee, one can clearly see the intent of the leaders of this employee organization … to bring down the SFFD and Union in the public’s eye, and then takeover during the rebuilding process.

Read on to see how the two command structures have resulted in a dysfunctional department that is correctly viewed as being ripe for a “takeover,” and how the clandestine plotting by EMS website participants appears to be an attempt to bring down both the Union and the SFFD administration.

Early Problems

The problems with the DPH merger began at the outset, with the creation of a new Fire/EMS model that was designed for failure. The “Phase II” documents that outlined the new SFFD service model were based on suburban fire department configurations, and have been so rigidly adhered to for the last seven years that they have been a blueprint for disaster. The creation of 24-hour transport ambulances was the first mistake, resulting in a workload for paramedics that was just too burdensome. Transporting anywhere from 12 to 25 patients on every 24 hour shift is simply too much for any paramedic to handle on a regular basis, for fatigue is just too great at these numbers. This creation of an overworked staff resulted in ALS engine shifts becoming the “Holy Grail”, or the only way off the ambulance. It also created a system that was plagued with high levels of sick leave and disability that was a result of this workload.

The new EMS merger model also led to the SFFD being constantly short of medics and resulted in a breakdown of the recruiting and training system at the Presidio. Virtually no new recruits from the fire ranks were willing to become paramedics in the new system…and without new recruits there was no way for a paramedic to get off the ambulance and onto an engine. This chronically understaffed program resulted in an “endless probation” for medics, with only 36 DPH employees just about to finish their probationary training now, nearly 7 years after the merger!

The product of this collaboration of failures was the need for “Lateral” medics, or firefighter/paramedics that were to be hired from outside departments to make up for the staffing shortfall. The effect of these lateral hires was the creation of a giant “pyramid” scheme where the most recently hired firefighter/medics were always working on the ambulance, and getting angrier by the day, because they had been promised engine positions when they transferred over.

System Failures

The lack of probationary fire training and declining employee morale also coincided with several expansions of the Rapid Paramedic Response System (RPRS). These expansions always went beyond the capabilities of the department’s resources, both in manpower and finances. Instead of growing the Advanced Life Saving (ALS) fire engines slowly over time, the RPRS system was always expanded in waves or “phases”.

The most recent expansions of the program were also the most ingenious because they were designed to create system-wide failure and necessitate even more expansion. What these RPRS expansions did was create “one and one” ambulances, or ambulances with one paramedic and one firefighter.

The EMS mantra on the “one and one” ambulance was that it was a more efficient use of resources, because now there would be more paramedics on more engines, and you could get a paramedic to the patient’s side quicker. What was not mentioned though, was that all code 3 calls in San Francisco require two paramedics, which now meant that any and all ALS engines would be required to chase ambulances throughout the City. What this resulted in was the dispatch of the closest fire engine and ambulance, and then the additional dispatch of an ALS engine to meet up with an ambulance, as well as a Rescue Captain…all for the unlikely event that the call was an actual code 3 call. In the initial phase of the RPRS expansion, the “one and one” ambulance also required some engines to travel to their third and fourth alarm districts for a routine medical call.

The duplication of runs for this new “one and one” system was staggering. Now medical calls in San Francisco were routinely being answered by nearly 11 fire department personnel, with most of these calls being simple code 2, or non-life threatening calls. The Presidio command’s answer to this problem was that more ALS engines were needed to avoid the duplication of runs. The “one and one” ambulance was never correctly viewed as the problem though, because that would interfere with the expansion plans of the Presidio leaders…

Budget Problems

At about this point in time, the City was facing its greatest budget crisis since the Great Depression. Nearly 347 million dollars were needed to be trimmed off of the budget, and all city departments would face the axe. The City sent out guidelines for all departments; all travel must be curtailed, all unnecessary overtime must be cut, and all program expansions must be stopped. Mayor Brown met with department heads and labor leaders and asked that all parties work together to come up with the least painful cuts possible.

All City unions and departments went to work early in the crisis…all except one small faction, the EMS machine over at the Presidio. Upon being notified that the RPRS expansion was to be delayed due to budgetary constraints, the EMS Command Staff went to work. Recent documents received indicate that rescue captains and several EMS chiefs began coordinating efforts through their secretive website. A massive notice went out; the EMS Chiefs, Medical Directors, Rescue Captains and paramedics were to lobby against the Chief and the department, and get the Fire Commission to order the next level of expansion.

Why was this next level of expansion so important to the Presidio? It was to be the final nail in the suppression “coffin”… the expansion of ALS engines to the downtown corridor. Even though the administration had promised not to put ALS engines downtown, and never to expand the program without obtaining an engine spot through attrition, this was viewed as too important a territory for the Presidio to wait for. If the bureaucratic land grab was to continue, the momentum could not be stopped by the inconvenience of budgetary shortfalls.

By the end of the next day, Fire Commission members had been inundated at their workplaces with e-mails and phone calls, and Chief Trevino was ordered to continue the expansion.

The general order went out that day, the RPRS expansion was to continue even as jobs were about to be cut from the fire department…even as employees had voted themselves a 3% pay cut for the previous year… and even as the Board of Supervisors were looking to get rid of operators AND cut all city employee’s pay by 7.5% in order to avoid layoffs.

It appeared that there was no stopping the Presidio machine.

Morale Declines Further

While SFFD members were facing an even greater pay cut in order to avoid layoffs and firehouse closures, the Presidio command had succeeded in their biggest expansion ever, increasing from 18 to 27 ALS engines. And with this expansion came waves of overtime, with five WDO’s the first day, four the next watch, etc. It appeared that the budget crisis in San Francisco only applied to all other city workers. Firefighters began to feel that their pay cuts were subsidizing the RPRS expansion and the increasing amounts of overtime needed to feed that expansion.

While the most recent contract was being ratified by Union members, with operators and other positions being cut from the SFFD budget, a “civil war” of sorts erupted. Recent documents presented to the Mainline reveal that the Presidio command, and all the associated secret websites, sought to turn the executive board of the Union into the villains of the budget crisis. Local 798 heads were blamed for the budget cutbacks made by the Department, and a collaborative effort began between several rescue captains, the Presidio command staff and the non-elected SFPFA heads.

Members of the SFPFA went before the Budget committee of the Board of Supervisors and presented misleading statistics that “demonstrated” the in-service times of rescue captains vs. battalion chiefs. Another SFPFA member went before the Supervisors and claimed that only firefighters were getting overtime and that this resulted in disparate treatment of paramedics.

The leaders of the San Francisco Paramedic Firefighters Association also lobbied all the Supervisors to vote against the MOU and the subsequent budget cuts. This lobbying resulted in both a weakened fire department and union; too many voices were being heard at City Hall and the Union and Department began to look vulnerable. The Supervisors voted to restore the rescue captain cut from the budget and eliminate three additional battalion chiefs…things looked bleak.

One posting by an EMS Chief on one of the websites showed just how far things had deteriorated:

“The rescue captain position in the field was not ‘browned out’ but eliminated! Furthermore, and more disturbing, the (Fire) Commission, particularly Conroy, has eaten the Union’s B.S. hook, line and sinker…By the way, I will be submitting a substantial EEO against the Department tomorrow with 6-7 signatories from the H-3’s. And so it begins…”

At this point in time, it appears that the EMS command had begun to covertly plot against the Fire Department command staff, as well as the Union.

Active Plotting Against Union

In the beginning of June 2003, the websites mentioned above seemed intent on bringing down both the Union and SFFD administration, through any means necessary. One posting said that the EMS employees had to treat the Union “as the adversaries they have become.” Another posting on the rescue captain website was entitled, “I Need Your 798 List of Crimes,” and actively sought “items for long term strategy use” against the Union.

One website participant wrote in concerning the efforts to fight Local 798, “This is needed to support the legal paper trail. I believe the two areas that will help with the downfall of Local 798 is one, to expose their financial activities and two, bring a number of lawsuits against them.”

Soon the rescue captain website began to even post pre-written grievances and instructions on how to file a complaint with the Department of Human Resources. The Internet was now being used as a tool to collect allegations to be used against the Union and the Department.

The website of the rescue captains and Presidio Command had now taken things to a new level, with management actively seeking to discredit both the department and the Union. One of the most galling postings by an EMS Chief read, “Great to see all the activity and good work among the H-33’s. Please, please, before initiating any formal actions against the Union for Misrepresentation, standby. MUCH IS ALREADY IN THE WORKS ON A NUMBER OF FRONTS AND ANY FORMAL EFFORTS EITHER AGAINST THE UNION OR THE CITY NEED A WELL THOUGHT OUT AND EXECUTED PLAN. CONTENT TIMING AND THE RIGHT REPRESENTATIVES (LEGAL OR OTHERWISE) IS EVERYTHING. WE DO NOT WANT MULTIPLE, PARTIAL EFFORTS. THAT’S ALL I CAN SAY FOR RIGHT NOW.”

One rescue captain replied, “Message received. Shall I maintain my sniper post? Holding fire and awaiting further orders.”

It appeared that at this point in time, the EMS Command staff was not only secretly engaging in union busting, but was also working on discrediting the very department that employed them.

Efforts Against Administration

While the Board of Supervisors were holding budget hearings, the clandestine websites were also actively promoting open dissent against the SFFD administration by its mid-level managers, the rescue captains. Not to be outdone, the Presidio EMS Chiefs were also researching grievances to be filed against the administration, but they also were “looking for internal memos” to support the very grievances they were promoting.

Insults were also a part of these websites, with one rescue captain opining, “I am so ready for this weasely piece of s—- to depart and screw up some other department. The Chief of Department has no moral backbone whatsoever.” Animosity had now entered into the EMS management ranks, against the very Chief that was imported to be their savior.

During the budget hearings the Department was severely undermined by the websites, with letters being drafted to Supervisors that really showed a divided fire department. Day after day, the websites turned into a seminar on lobbying and letter writing, with draft letters being reworked until they were sent out. These letters were very dismissive of both the Chief and the Department itself. One letter to Supervisor Maxwell read, “I was disturbed, however, to learn that Chief Trevino could be so misinformed…”

Regarding the budget cuts, another letter to the Mayor read, “I truly hope that you are the outside force that is able to make the fire department recognize their short sightedness on this issue…and I hope that you will able to help the fire department get back in-touch with it’s mission of serving the public.”

In late June, the EMS websites also sought to involve both the Mayor and City auditor Harvey Rose’s office in the budget fracas, with one letter stating, “I understand that as the Chief of the Department difficult decisions must be made in regards to the overall fiscal health of the City, but I am greatly disturbed that the Chief has dismissed several of the recommendations that were made by the Budget Analyst’s office and presented to him in the audit report.” The EMS Command Staff and the rescue captains were now attempting to use the auditor’s report to help the Supervisors cut jobs from the SFFD budget, in order to further build their empire.

It appeared to the Board of Supervisors that the fire department was not united, and that cuts could be made to the weak and divided city agency. Three battalion chiefs were cut only weeks later…These cuts were later negated by the hard efforts of Local 798, but questions remained as to whether permanent damage was done to the reputation of labor in the SFFD.

Public Smear Campaign

Once the “members only” websites and EMS command staff began to collect allegations against firefighters and administration members, a public relations smear campaign began in earnest. According to one Chief officer of the SFFD, the leaders of the San Francisco Paramedic Firefighter Association went to the Mayor’s office and presented unfounded allegations of misconduct by firefighters. The upper level source also indicated that the SFPFA sought to have several stations disbanded because of “hostile treatment.”

Simultaneous to these backroom political actions, the leadership of the SFPFA also went to the Examiner and Independent newspapers and presented even more allegations of misconduct by firefighters. According to one reporter, the SFPFA claimed that cultural differences were to blame for the merger difficulties, and that firefighters were simply “playground bullies.” (As of the deadline for this publication, the article had not been published yet.)

It appeared that discrediting the entire department had become a fair tactic in order to gain even greater control of the SFFD. For the EMS command staff and the SFPFA leadership, no outlet was too daunting for their task…not the Mayor’s office, not the Supervisor’s and not even the media. The Department and its labor union had to be discredited in order for a power vacuum to be established. And once this power vacuum was established, it appeared that the goal was for the remaining EMS leadership to swoop in and take even further control of the department.

The Presidio command staff now appeared to be serving an even greater function than running the department, it seemed to assist in weakening the department to an extent that it was ripe for takeover…through any means necessary. Through the power of secretive websites and their small and efficient group of participants, damage had been done, and continues to be done to the SFFD.

Where do we go from here?

At this point in time, it appears that there may be a “holding pattern” established, where all participants are taking a break from their efforts. Perhaps now is the time for a number of tasks to take place. For starters, all parties must come to the table to rework this merger and make it run more smoothly and effectively. Employee participation from both the Suppression and EMS sides of the department must come about and create a new blueprint for success. If not, the SFFD will only be weaker during the next budget crisis and will be picked apart by bureaucrats looking to fund their own departments and projects.

Secondly, the Union busting tactics of EMS management must stop, and they must stop now. If there is a feeling of misrepresentation, a union member must only come down to the office and discuss their issues. Most importantly though, everyone in labor must realize that Unions must represent all of their members and seek solutions that are best for everyone. Providing improved EMS care for the citizens of San Francisco is the goal of this Union and the SFFD, but it must be done in an efficient manner that does minimal damage to existing employees and existing services, namely fire fighters and the currently maligned practice of firefighting.

When the Administration and Union were faced with the current budget crisis, difficult decisions were made, and all Union brother and sisters were damaged. But unlike other Unions, Local 798 had the unfortunate task of trying to balance their member’s paycheck against their member’s safety. Your Union, and the Administration, felt that keeping every firehouse, engine, truck and ambulance open was the priority not only for our own safety, but also for the very safety of those who pay us, the taxpayers.

Third, the dual command structure of the SFFD must be disbanded. No other city agency has such a dysfunctional configuration, and no other city agency has one branch of its leadership seeking to discredit the other. The SFFD chain of command must be unified and determined in its purpose and goals. The EMS section of the SFFD must realize that it is just that, a section of the fire department and not the entire department. The SFFD has been providing excellent service, both in firefighting and emergency medicine, for many years now. Prior to the DPH/SFFD merger San Francisco was not a modern-day Calcutta with people dying in the streets…emergency medical care was delivered, and it was done in a cost efficient manner. The department can improve the level of service it delivers, but one very important thing must be realized…there is no longer unlimited funding, the roaring 1990’s are long over. Every city agency must become lean and efficient, without jeopardizing their core missions… and in the SFFD’s case that is fire suppression and emergency medical care.

Lastly, the litany of unfounded allegations and the smear tactics of certain EMS chiefs, rescue captains and the leaders of the Paramedic/Firefighter association must end. Efforts to bring down the fire department and its hard-working members will only backfire in the end, and ultimately, damage everyone involved. Singing to the press and to the Mayor’s office only makes the department look like a bunch of unattended children, and the resulting treatment by the City’s politicos and bureaucrats will be harsh if this activity continues. And if the Department is brought down far enough by all of these accusations, there will be no chance to rebuild it to the size and stature that it formally was. A Civil war between the Union, EMS administration and certain employee groups will only result in net losses for everyone…it is time for all involved parties to come to the table.

Consider this article an invitation to end the hostilities.


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