The City Controllers Audit in Review
|By Steve Engler|
|In recent years the San Francisco Fire Department has been under a barrage of attacks by both internal and external forces, working to weaken and undermine the day to day operations, of what not long ago was considered one of the strongest fire departments in the country. These attacks range from a complete lack of leadership at the conclusion of and following a court-ordered consent decree, where very little management was necessary, an unsuccessful merger with the Department of Public Health Transport, promotional rules through Civil Service making promotional appointments more liberal than any other department in the City, to attacks from groups such as Coleman Advocates for Children demanding and manipulating audits and spreadsheets to justify the rape of the Fire Departments annual budget. This new attack, A Review of the San Francisco Fire-EMS System dated April 28, 2004, draw the battle lines very clearly.
This new Audit contains many points which do exactly what any audit is meant to do. By showing the right numbers and taking into consideration select points it will show exactly what the writers intend. Here are some of the Key points which need to be addressed.
The review found that there are substantial reductions that could be made in the efficiencies that would reduce the workload. It asks to allow the City to decrease its daily fixed staffing, hire fewer firefighters, and reduce spending. while acknowledging that some members may feel, changes threaten parts of the Department.
The report shows: San Francisco has more fire stations than any comparable community, the auditors believe that some stations can be removed immediately, or have the number of vehicles and staff reduced without harm. The audit recommends closing Stations 20, 24 or 26, and Truck 14. It does not consider among countless other things that these three companies all support each other in case of a fire. A company sent to replace them could be coming from the inner Mission or outer Sunset and be delayed an immeasurable amount of time. The plain truth is, in a fire, time means loss of property and lives. The deletion of Truck 14 is nothing more than complete insanity. Not only is Truck 14 instrumental in Surf Rescue operation at the beach, but if there is not a Truck at a fire, then the Engine can not put the fire out. It is that simple. The Audit also recommend slashing the staffing on some truck companies from one officer and four firefighter to one officer and three firefighters. This does not take into consideration that Trucks are already short one person in regards to raising the 50 foot ladder, which takes six people. If you could find an area of San Francisco without any hills, wires, or obstructions of any kind then this could be theoretical, but there are no areas in San Francisco that resemble this to my knowledge.
The number of calls the Department responds to are inflated due to false alarms, and it is likely that the service needed at a call is medical in nature. Also that Code 3 (lights and siren) calls could be reduced by better call screening. It seems that the auditeers are placing a great deal of emphasis on false fire calls and not looking at the number of proportionately misdispatched medical calls . There are hundreds of code 3 medical calls per day that are not Code 3 in nature. Helping a person put their pants on is not an emergency call, but under the current dispatch system, it warrants, at a minimum of an engine and an ambulance. This is in a system that before the merger ran very well with eight (8) dual paramedic ambulances and one (1) rescue captain on the street on Saturday at 10pm (peak hours). Now there are 21 ambulances, 24 ALS engines and four (4) rescue captains on the street at all times. This increase of up to over 400% in service has all been done without any increase in the budget of the Fire Department. There appears to be major changes that must occur in the way we dispatch units. This is a stance the Supreme Court also recognized. (See SF Chronicle, Dec. 19, 2003. Rescuers Protected From Negligence Suits.) This ruling protected dispatch agencies from negligence suits arising from misdispatched calls.
There are suggestions regarding the merger that must be addressed. The audit speaks at length of the difficulties of the merger and how gaps arise when fire fighting is valued over and dominates EMS. This may be true in other departments that have had mergers, but the truth here is that EMS in San Francisco has succeeded in waging a hostile take-over of a Fire Department. Since the inception of the merger, the EMS function of the department has been overly emphasized to a point where fire suppression has suffered. The report talks of disciplining firefighters for not embracing a new department-wide culture. This can be seen in the placement of paramedics on engines with little or no fire experience with another probationary firefighter, and the response to the concerned officer is do what you can. The report talks of fully qualified paramedics that have been trained in fire suppression functions. This is like saying because someone has passed the Bar exam they are ready to try a capital murder case. Without experience and actual fire training to teach a firefighter, they are a completely untested and unproven asset. The Audit speaks of obstacles to promotions of paramedics and to create the opportunity for current paramedics to move into the command structure. It would be advantageous if the writers of the audit were to include all employees in this statement. There has not been a promotional test in the Fire Department since 1996, but it is unfortunate that the auditeers seems to put such a low value on fire fighting that they believe anyone should be trusted with the lives of a crew in a fire. The very simple reality is that the paramedics were hired to run medical calls due to mismanagement of the merger. The Fire Department, while never discounting more training and education, will never needed a paramedic as a fire ground supervisor. The writers of the audit make it appear that they believe, as does Civil Service, that there should be a sign-up for promotion and that anyone interested could apply, with the Chief and other political influences, selecting anyone they please.
There is also a recommendation to increase our work-week to a minimum of 48.7 hours. which at best would be the 31 day tour system. The assumption that is made in this point is that the firefighters would agree to giving up the three floating holidays that previously were granted under this schedule. This is an issue better left to the members elected to our negotiating team. The one positive that is seen in this section is giving paramedics the ability to work 10 or 12 hour shift, and allow a dual function firefighter/paramedic to work on ambulances with single function paramedic. These single function paramedics are second to none in their field and should have the opportunity to pass their knowledge on to newer employees. This is a work condition that both Locals 798 and 790 have begged for since the inception of the merger.
The purpose and intent of this audit becomes very clear when one carefully reads the following statement, these changes would enable the City to be able to keep from closing city health clinics, it goes further to say, We should not allow the placement of this health care component in the Fire Department stop us from considering and evaluating it as part of the whole.
The merger was sold on two very simple ideas: First, it was to be a merger of equals. This has shown to be anything but true. It can be better stated that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Second, that DPH was a mission without a budget , and the Fire Department was a budget without a mission. To this statement all I have to say is that it seems Margaret Brodkin of Coleman Advocates for Youth believes her mission out-values that of the Fire-EMS system.
If you ask any member of the San Francisco Fire Department what there mission is they will tell you, I am a member of the best family in the world. It is my job to protect the lives and property of the citizen of San Francisco. I am a San Francisco Fire Fighter.