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Submitted by on 1, May 14, 2009 – 8:46 am19 Comments


Updated 2:40 p.m. Thursday, May 14

Alameda’s firefighters turned in more than 9,000 petition signatures this morning in their bid to qualify a minimum staffing measure for the November ballot.

“We feel this is our only real option. We feel this is a safe level of staffing,” firefighters union rep Jeff DelBono said.

The measure only needs 6,600 valid signatures to qualify. It would require the city to staff the department with a minimum of 27 fire suppression staff per shift.

The city had maintained those levels until January 26, when the department, in a bid to conserve overtime cash, cut the minimum staffing level to 24 and “browned out” truck and ambulance companies when additional staff weren’t on duty. Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant said last week that after layoffs, that minimum staffing level will be 22, and she said the city will close Fire Station 5 at Alameda Point.

Firefighters have maintained that the reduced staffing levels will compromise residents’ and firefighters’ safety, while city leaders say that’s not necessarily the case. DelBono said the department’s current staffing is lowest it’s been in over two decades, while call volumes are at historic highs.

DelBono said previously issued city-funded reports on the Island’s fire service recommended higher staffing levels than the department currently has.

City Clerk Lara Weisiger said she’s turned the signatures over to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters to count. They have 30 working days to do a random sample check and, if needed, another 30 working days to do a full count. After that, they announce whether the petition has enough valid signatures for the measure to be placed on the ballot.

“It’s just kind of a wait-and-see process now,” Weisiger said.

The city filed a suit on March 27 seeking to stop the initiative, claiming the measure would illegally usurp the council’s ability to set budget and staffing levels. A case management conference is set for August 10.


  • John says:

    I think the interesting comment from an earlier report: "The report acknowledges that the vast majority of fire department calls are for medical calls, with just 5 percent for actual fires." I think it begs the question: Are medical calls a job that the Fire Dept. should be doing, it seems to me rolling an ambulance/truck and engine for every call is an over-utilization of resources, and this may be a service better outsourced to a private company with EMTs.

  • Berton says:

    The Alameda County EMS Authority establishes the minimum response for an EMS call. That currently is one ALS ambulance with at least one paramedic and a first responder advanced life support fire apparatus also known as a FRALS Fire Engine or Fire Truck with at least one paramedic. This deployment is set as a minimum and all cities in Alameda County are required to follow that.

  • Scott says:

    OK as per Berton's response above, just because it has been set as a minimum, doesn't mean it makes sense! Why do we waste resources sending a heavy truck on a medical call that has personnel not trained in the response to that medical call and by doing this burning diesel that is a non-renewable resource and ading to the pollution footprint of our city??

    Surely it makes sense to do what other countries in the world have been doing for years and separating the medical response personnel from the fire personnel. They are two different specialties and in most cases a medical issue does NOT require a fire response.

    If we separate the resources we can target them more appropriately and make better use of the resource.

    This is our money remember that is being spent like this.

  • Jmasterson says:

    Scott, Before you start playing city manager on blogs, there are a lot of special considerations when it comes to medical calls. I work in a comparable EMS district on an ambulance and work very closely with fire crews. If it weren't for the fire departments quick response(under 4 min) most patients will have no chance of survival. Our response times average 6-8 min due to short staffing of our ambulances and given we respond mostly from hospitals. If you cut out the fire department from medical calls, you'll have 2 paramedics responding to your home within 6-8 min and have to do the work that 7-8 people do in the ER. If you need to carry a person who is unconscious down 3 flights of stairs with 2 people, how do you give that person oxygen? Carry equipment? Provide safety for crew? What should be looked at are the salaries of the city manager and 3 attorneys who make more than the president of the United States.

  • Mark says:


    If stretching dollars becomes a bigger and bigger priority we will have to looks at the how to maintain the best safety while keeping cost as lean as possible.

  • Mark says:

    Sorry, the 9:27 post above was an inadvertent transmission of an unfinished post. I am now rushed but was going to add comments about the current system being explained to me as automatically providing for a worst case scenario. As example, there may be a heart attack call, but the fire crew comes along in case the person fell when they had their heart attack and became wedged behind the stove or some other complication which is beyond the capacity of EMTs. That's a stupid example, but you may get the idea. I have heard reference to jurisdictions having emergency dispatch sort out details on calls so that there is not an over response. You can see where that can be a problem when the person making the call may not accurately convey the actual situation.

    I've been upset by the ballot initiative because I don't believe that it is the proper method for regulating safety or budget issues. I do respect the fire fighters and their work and do think they should be well compensated while on the job. But as at every level of business and government we are going to have to give close scrutiny to cost control balanced against the best service we can provide.

  • Mark says:

    One could argue that Alameda is over-served with regard to the fire department, particularly in the West End of town. Assuming it is still open, the fire station at Alameda Point was opened almost a decade ago on the assumption that there'd be enough population and commercial activity to warrant a full-service station there. Given the delays in the conversion process, one wonders if the city can continue to carry the fixed costs of a full-service station at the Point, especially when options are available such as closing the other West End station while keeping open the AP station, or closing AP while keeping open the station near Webster Street.

  • jmasterson says:

    Working in EMS, you can rely on your first responders. I work for an ambulance company across the bridge and I am dedicated to public safety. I believe the firefighters have the best ideas on how to keep the island covered without impacting the budget. It sounds like they have offered solutions to save money, stated here. http://www.savealamedafirehouses.com But it says the city is not interested in those solutions? I was also reading the reports paid for by the city on their website. http://www.savealamedafirehouses.com/Important_In… How come the city is not following these procedures. They only ask for minimum staffing, not the recommended national standards. The firefighters have done their homework and I would trust them since they work in the field, and have been around longer than their fire chief and city manager. These people have no idea! and never worked a day in this type of work. I live on the west end and can't afford to have the engine and truck down there out of service. Why is this up for debate? How come the measure P money isn't helping?

  • Jill says:

    Some of us think the business of firefighters should be fighting fires, not providing free medical services or helping people get into their locked cars or turning off gas or whatever. I read the fire wire in the newspapers and it doesn't look like there is much actual firefighting going on by those 24 firefighters we're paying for 24/7. THAT's why this is up for debate.

  • jmasterson says:

    Jill, I'm sure you pay for insurance 24/7 that you use rarely or not at all. Its a life saving insurance policy that you want to count on when have a heart attack or stop breathing. If you have family with medical issues, you rely on these services. And last time I checked they bill for ambulance services. It is positive income for the city.

  • not quite broke,but says:

    I wish I could afford the level of homeowners insurance I wish I had, or that the insurance companies reccommend…

  • Jill says:


    Do you have any figures on the amount of revenue the ambulance services bring in, vs. the cost of the calls (including pro-rated personnel costs – cash, insurance benefits and retirement benefits, which I imagine is the majority of the department's comp expense since the vast majority of the calls seem to be medical – and the cost of sending out the fire trucks)? If it is truly a money-maker that helps subsidize the cost of fire services, that would certainly change my opinion.

    Is the department's income statement on line somewhere?

    • Hey guys,

      Last I checked, the ambulance service costs the city $4 million to operate and returns back about $2 million in fees. Alameda voters said yes to the service in 1982 and from the way I understand it, also a tax to pay for it. But that tax was apparently never collected.

  • David Kirwin says:

    I seem to recall that a substantial portion of calls for ambulance support was from off-island where Alameda was usually backing up Oakland.( It may have been 20%) Last year this was talked about because the city was not being reimbursed and the Mutual Aid contract was something like 5 years expired. Was this remedied, or is this "returned back funds" representative of a number in a column on a city hall spreadsheet, or has it been actually collected?

    • Hi David,

      I think you've got two separate issues here. One is the countywide EMS agreement, which every city is a party to. Apparently our agreement with the county has lapsed, with the big issue from our side being that we are paying some pretty substantial fees to the county even though we provide our own ambulance service. The second is calls into Oakland. The broad brush on that one as I understand it is basically that we did have a lot of calls to back up the private ambulance company that serves Oakland (and much of Alameda County, for that matter), but that they have worked out that issue and the call volume has dropped significantly.

  • David Kirwin says:

    Thanks Michelle, I knew my memory was vague on that.

    Has the private ambulance industry grown and expanded services in Oakland and much of the county? Is that a cost-effective solution we should be examining for our city in these strained economic times?

    Speaking of strained economics; do you know how much money each year is diverted to cover re-development debt costs in our city's 're-development districts"?

  • David Kirwin says:

    Thank you Dominick for all that information.

    I have just a few questions.

    Am I correct that you are saying the money now collected for ambulance transport services fully funds City of Alameda for costs of:

    a.) The firefighters doing the Advanced Life Support,

    but NOT other associated costs to our city for the ALS services including;

    b.)Equipment and housing, (the paramedic response and transport units, and the portion of fire stations relating to the ALS service), or,

    c.) The County assessment for ALS at $830k/yr, or the accumulated past unpaid assessment totaling $2.3M. (I hope our City Manager has budgeted for the $3.13M 'October hit'.)

    Please explain how the City of Alameda benefits from the ALS ‘County system’ if we provide our own services.

    Also do Berkeley, Albany and Piedmont pay the same $25.64 unit tax as Alameda and the rest of the County? (I just wasn’t sure of my interpretation.)

    "Once the City joined the County System, the Council lost the right to withdraw from the system without the permission of the Alameda County Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO)."

    I am sure there is a story behind a negotiation with such a result as this – and I'd love to hear it. Has anyone tried to negotiate to opt out of this plan? (Albany, Berkeley, Piedmont?)

    I also wonder if all the new re-development district dwellings increase the “fiscally neutral” costs to our city for County ALS fees. – Any answers appreciated.

  • In 1983, voters in Alameda County (including Alameda) passed an advisory vote for an Emergency Medical Service Parcel Tax. The City of Alameda opted out of the County EMS system at that time and did not pass that tax on to the citizens.
    The City contracted out ambulance transport services to a private provider until 1 JULY 1984. Due to increased contract costs and long delays in response times from the private provider, the Fire Department assumed responsibility for the service after that date. Starting out with one dedicated ambulance, over the years and due to call volume, the service expanded to three ambulances. No additional staff was hired to staff ambulances. Instead, firefighters were removed from Engines and Trucks to perform this service. With the development of Trauma Criterias in 1987 and for the use of Trauma Centers in the County, The City of Alameda paid the County a $100,000 fee per year.
    Basic Life Support was the level of service from 1984 until 1999 when the City upgraded to Advanced Life Support at the Paramedic Level. At that time, the City joined the ALS County system and the fees went up to $630,000. That figure is based on “Benefit Units”, and was the agreed upon amount at the inception of the ALS program. The County supported the improvement to the level of emergency medical service and granted Alameda an Exclusive Operating Area for Alameda and also returned $530,000 per year of the initial contract to help with the start-up costs associated with providing ALS.
    The City was paid up on their fees to the County until 31 OCTOBER 2005. The City has been out of contract with the County and has not paid the County assessment since then. The current outstanding amount owed to the County is currently 2.3 million dollars, with an additional $830,000.00 due for the 09/10 fiscal year. That amount is based on the County wide price of $25.64 per “Benefit Unit”. According to the County, there are about 32,370 “Benefit Units” in Alameda. The fee is due the County regardless of whether or not the City operates an Ambulance Transport service.

    The present ambulance transport system operated by the Fire Department is an Advanced Life Support program staffed with Firefighter Paramedics on Fire Engines and Ambulances. This is a consistent level of service as the rest of the County, although Alameda is one of four Fire Department based Ambulance Transport systems. With the exceptions of Berkeley, Piedmont and Albany, the rest of the County is serviced by the current County provider, American Medical Response (AMR).
    When the City implemented the ALS program it joined the County system and contracted with the County. With that, it became a requirement to pay the County fees. Once the City joined the County System, the Council lost the right to withdraw from the system without the permission of the Alameda County Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO).
    If the City were to develop a successor agreement with the County, of the $830,000.00 in annual fees due to the County, approximately 17% could be returned to the City. Some of this money would be in the form of equipment and training. The County Board of Supervisors has the sole authority for setting assessment fees. Currently, Alameda residents pay no tax for these assessment fees.
    In a pre “Brownout” world, the Fire Department responds with a fleet of four ambulances. Three of these ambulances are fully dedicated 24 hours a day with independent crews. These three ambulances are staffed by firefighters and respond to structure fires as an integrated part of the fire attack force. The other ambulance is staffed by firefighters assigned to an Engine company. Just as the dedicated ambulances respond to fires when needed, the Engine crew responds as an additional ambulance when needed.
    The current City system is self-supporting from 2 million dollars in ambulance fees collected per year.
    All of the ambulance staff were firefighter positions authorized prior to the Ambulance program. With the original adoption of the Ambulance program, Engine and Truck company crew strength was reduced from a mode of four per apparatus to three per apparatus with the understanding that the firefighters on ambulances would also respond to fires, as well as many other types of emergency calls.
    The multipurpose use of the same firefighters for fire, hazardous materials, water rescue, technical rescue and ambulance responses, with the flexibility to assign all personnel to whichever service demand is currently high, provides for a very efficient use of personnel. Contracting out the transport program would result in either increased cost to the City, due to the provider’s single purpose personnel staffing cost, or result in lowering the City’s fire and emergency response capability, as firefighters are deleted to pay for the provider contract costs.
    Another contracting alternative would be to simply accept whatever service the single County provider (AMR) is able to provide. This option would provide paramedic ambulance service, but with much longer response times averaging 8-12 minutes. It is probable that much of the time there would be no ambulance physically stationed within City limits. All of the sovereignty, control and fee assessments previously addressed would still apply to this option.

    So to put it simply, the 2 million dollars recovered through ambulance fees helps to offset the cost of your firefighters. The County fee must be addressed whether there is a FD Ambulance Transport Service or not. All cities in the County pay $25.64 per benefit unit, only 4 of them have FD Ambulances that transport.

    Finally, the calls into Oakland have been addressed. We are responding ambulances into Oakland much less than in the past few years, however, more and more patients request to be transported to hospitals off the island and that leads to other issues…..Like fewer resources here to protect you.

    For more information, please visit our website. http://www.savealamedafirehouses.com

  • Hey David,
    Let me see if I can answer your questions.
    1. The Ambulance fees collected by the City are a little over 2 million this year. That covers 13-14 of your 18 firefighters who are assigned to Ambulances and providing the transport service, INCLUDING BENEFITS. Remember, no firefighters were added to implement the transport service. They were already here. They were taken from Engines and Trucks to provide the Ambulance service in ADDITION to responding to all other types of emergencies. Equipment, training and the County fee are additional. The housing was already there as the units are stationed in the firehouses and have minimal impact to the cost of maintaining quarters. As far as the 3.1 million dollar hit, negotiations between City and the County need to take place to address that.

    2. The City benefits from being part of the County system as that County system is what provides for Trauma Centers and specialty hospitals like Cardiac Centers and Stroke Centers. It covers policy and protocol development and County mandated training. All Fire Departments, both City and County have to pay the $25.64 per BU REGARDLESS of if they have a transport Ambulance Service or not. Those that do not have Ambulances do not receive the offset for their services because they lack the ability to bill for Ambulance Transport fees.

    3. I do not know of any jurisdiction that has ever tried to get out of the County Plan.

    4. New development causes the amount of benefit units to increase. Benefit units multiplied by the $25.64 per BU will give you the amount due the County for the fee.

    I was born, raised, and lived in Alameda for 30 years. I have been a firefighter here for 17 years. I remember when the City and the Fire Department took on the Ambulance Service as a response to the needs of this community. The quick response, care and transport of the sick and inured has saved many lives and touched many others. Alamedans know that our City is unique as we are an Island. We cannot be fooled by those who refuse to recognize our geographical challenges. We do not have converging responses like most mainland jurisdictions. We have experienced earthquakes, Gas Fires, plane crashes, and multiple greater alarm fires in a single day. Our resources have been strained to the breaking point on many occasions throughout our history and we must be prepared. Your level of service pre “brownouts” was adequate, NOT optimal. Further reductions will undoubtedly cause catastrophic results and your firefighters are not going to sit here and say that additional risk to the community or the firefighters is acceptable. I speak from the Alameda experience.

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