|By Tom OConnor, Treasurer|
|With San Francisco once again facing severe budgetary pressure, it is imperative that the Fire Department protect its share of the monies alloted this year. Without any budget carveouts or special tax assessments earmarked for Fire Department use, this is virtually impossible. The entire purpose of the Neighborhood Firehouse Protection Act (NFPA) is to both protect the staffing of the SFFD and keep the department from having to engage in a game of fiscal Survivor every budgetary cycle.
What is most critical to remember when presenting this measure to the voters is just how much the SFFD has been cut from 1970 to the present, while also increasing its workload nearly five-fold.
|Certain City officials like Controller Ed Harrington and Budget Analyst Harvey Rose have portrayed the department as inefficient and under-worked. Nothing could be further from the truth. The information presented below will show that the SFFD is one of the busiest, and most efficient, fire departments in America.
Currently, The San Francisco Fire Department is the 7th busiest department in the nation, responding to over 235,000 emergency runs per year. The Department also works a 48.7 hour work week, more hours than most of the major urban departments. San Francisco boasts the busiest engine company in the nation, the 6th busiest Battalion Chief, 7th busiest ambulance, etc., etc, etc. By all measures, San Francisco is one of the top departments nationally.
In fact, the workload of the SFFD has gone from 30,727 calls in 1971 to over 110,000 in 2003. This increase in emergency calls has also coincided with a more than significant reduction in on-duty personnel. In 1971 the department had over 457 firefighters and officers working daily. Today the department has only 339 on duty, and that includes the staffing of 20 ambulances for which the department was not previously responsible for.
What these numbers tell you is that the department has tripled its number of emergency responses while decreasing its daily staffing by over 100 front-line employees. These figures represent a FIVE-FOLD INCREASE in the workload to each firefighter on duty. There is virtually no other city department or agency that has seen such efficiencies over the past 30 years none.
San Francisco has faced great budgetary pressures before, and the City has closed stations and made personnel cutbacks on fire engines and trucks. As recently as 1980, three engines, two truck companies and the fire boat crew were closed. Staffing on each apparatus was also reduced in July of 1980, with personnel on engines reduced from 5 to 4 and truck companies reduced from 7 to 6. In July of 1990, all truck companies were again reduced from 6 to 5.
Throughout the 1990s cuts were also made to the management ranks, with on-duty chiefs reduced by a third, and administrative chiefs also significantly reduced. These reductions also came at a time of great institutional change for the department, with the SFFD merging with the Department of Public Health, providing ambulance service to San Franciscans. This merger was not without its problems however, and a great deal of this can be attributed to the reduction in the management ranks of the SFFD. Perhaps tens of millions of dollars could have been saved had the merger been properly managed and implemented.
The resultant effect of all of the above mentioned staff reductions during just the last two decades, is a Fire Department that is far past its limit for tolerating cutbacks. As currently staffed, the SFFD is dangerously close to not fulfilling its core mission; protecting the lives and property of San Francisco.
Job Scope Increases
As mentioned above, the 1990s were host to a great number of changes in the SFFD. Most significant of these changes was merger of the SFFD with the Department of Public Health. With the Department of Public Health looking to offshore the costs of ambulance transport, and privatization of ambulance care being a taboo subject in San Francisco, the fire department absorbed nearly 180 additional employees, their ambulances and their management.
The merger proved to be more difficult than expected, resulted in a great number of difficulties and wreaked havoc on the budget of the fire department. Not only did the number of emergency calls increase markedly, but the increased workload led to a great exodus of paramedics from San Francisco to other fire departments in the state. Furthermore, the migration of paramedics to other cities forced San Francisco Fire Department employees to work even harder to provide basic service.
The increase in medical responsibilities as a result of the merger led to other cost increases, such as field supervisors for ambulances, additional Medical Chiefs, and a training academy for paramedics. A host of bureaucratic positions were also created to handle all of the paperwork that traditionally accompanies medical care.
All of these increases in responsibilities and emergency calls however, were not paired with budget increases. In fact, the current fire department slice of the total budget is back to early 1992 levels.
Budget Percentage of General Fund
During the period spanning from the 1970s through the mid-to-late 1980s, the San Francisco Fire Departments budget ranged between 7.2 to 9.1 % of the Citys total budget. Today, in contrast, and even with the combined Fire and EMS operations, the Fire Department accounts for substantially less than 3% of the entire budget, and has declined considerably relative to other government departments and programs.
In fact, a great deal of budgetary pressure was relieved from the City coffers in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 172. This proposition dedicated a 1/2 % state sales tax to public safety and mandated that California cities not cut their budgets correspondingly
While this was occurring, San Francisco was entering a period of great economic expansion, the era of the Dot-Coms. During the late 1990s, Mayor Willie added nearly 4,000 more employees to the City payroll, an unheralded expansion.
What becomes quite apparent, is that while San Francisco was adding thousands of jobs to the payroll, the SFFD was continually downsizing. This downsizing occurred while the department was not only increasing its responsibilities and workload, but merging with another City department.
No other San Francisco department or agency can make the same claims. In fact, the increased efficiencies demonstrated during this period are now turning into liabilities, with the department spread so thin that any more budget cutbacks threaten the core responsibilities of the department.
What is most important to recognize about the Neighborhood Firehouse Protection Act is that this is simply a ballot measure designed to protect public safety funding. Its sole purpose is to depoliticize the budget process and prevent the fire departments budget from being leveraged against its fiscal foes, like the Coleman Advocates and others.
It is also critical to remember that the San Francisco Fire Department is one of the busiest in the nation, providing service to a very diverse constituency, and doing so without a great deal of fanfare. Other fire departments engage in more public relations than emergency service, and perhaps we should start to borrow from their management models, but in the meantime it is important to present our numbers and show San Francisco just how much we do on a daily basis.
The strength of our ballot measure lies in the fact that it is based on the truth ... the need for San Francisco to properly staff and fund its emergency service providers in order to protect public safety a basic service taxpayers expect.