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Firefighters say staff cuts hurt Bay Farm fire response

Submitted by on 1, June 17, 2009 – 6:00 am8 Comments

81Alameda’s firefighters are saying they think recent staffing cuts slowed their response to a two-alarm fire Sunday on Bay Farm Island and may have been a factor in injuries two firefighters received while battling the blaze. But Alameda Fire Chief David Kapler said he doesn’t think that’s the case.

The firefighters and Kapler also offered a wealth of fresh details about Sunday’s Bay Farm Island fire at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.

Representatives of the firefighters’ union are saying that cuts that permanently shuttered a fire station on Alameda Point, coupled with the fact that all three of the department’s ambulances were off-Island on other calls when the fire call came in at around 6:30 p.m. Sunday, delayed the department’s response to the fire.

“The lack of resources to complete a simple first alarm and the subsequent delayed actions allowed the fire to intensify and hazardous conditions to exponentially increase. That translates to a more dangerous threat to life and health and increased property damage,” the union’s reps wrote in a press release issued this week.

Union president Domenick Weaver said there were only a dozen firefighters available on the Island when the fire call came in. (Another three firefighters came available about a minute later.) Full staff for a first alarm is 18, he told The Island, adding that the additional staffing the department has typically had was in place to handle a major incident like this one plus additional emergencies.

But Fire Chief Kapler said the evidence doesn’t support the union’s claims. Ultimately, 21 Alameda fire personnel responded to the fire, he told the City Council on Tuesday night.

Kapler told The Island that the fire was pretty far along by the time firefighters got there, and that they only received a call after someone saw flames coming through the roof. (He told the council that every room in the house – save the garage – was on fire when firefighters entered.)

“There were plenty of firefighters and there was no delay in getting them there,” Kapler said.

Kapler said the response time for the first engine on the scene was four minutes and 25 seconds, and second and third engines came in seven minutes and three seconds. He said more firefighters came to fight the fire than usual, including Oakland firefighters who headed there instead of backing up the fire stations, as they typically do.

He told the council that the closure of Station 5 didn’t affect the outcome of the fire. But Kapler also said that if some of the department’s fire rigs were tied up on other calls, “then we could have a more negative outcome than normal.”

The fire gutted a home on the 100 block of Inverness Way and injured two fire captains. Capt. Rick Murray received burns to his back, flank and stomach when he was apparently bumped and fell over a low wall right inside the home and his protective clothing separated. He was treated at Alameda Hospital and released Sunday night, but was taken by his family to the St. Francisco Hospital burn center in San Francisco for additional treatment.

Kapler said Murray’s recovery will take several weeks. He said the department plan to bring a neutral third party to investigate the injury.

Firefighter Jeff DelBono told the council that his was one of the ambulances off-Island when the call came in and that it took him 20 minutes to get to the fire from Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. He said his rig showed up just before the private ambulance that responded to the call – and after Murray was injured.

A second firefighter, Capt. Rich Navarro, received burns to his hands when the fire rekindled in the roof area of the home, at around 3 a.m. Monday. Kapler told the council that Navarro grabbed a wrought iron railing that was so hot it burned through his protective gloves.

Kapler told the council that he thinks the department knows the cause of the fire, but he didn’t offer it Tuesday night.

The firefighters are in the process of placing a measure on the ballot requiring the city to set a minimum staffing level of 27 firefighters per shift, which is the number of fire staff the department used before this year’s rounds of belt-tightening and budget cuts began.

The Alameda County Registrar of Voters has said the measure has enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Weaver said the council should get a report on the measure to place it on the ballot on July 7. City officials have challenged the measure in court.

Weaver also said the union has lost confidence in Kapler’s leadership and he asked for the fire chief’s immediate resignation. He said Kapler has been consumed by budget issues since he came to lead the department in 2007 and has failed to address much else.

8 Comments »

  • Eve says:

    If Alameda subcontracted out the transport of injured people (as is my understanding most other Bay Area cities and towns do) we wouldn't be sending our firefighter/paramedics on long drives to off-island hospitals, making them unavailable in the case of the inevitable next emergency. There is no stretch of logic by which the current arrangement makes sense. Either fiscally (our firefighter/paramedics earn far more than the emts/drivers which staff the contract agency's ambulances) or in terms of safety: Why send your best trained personnel off-island when they are very much needed on?

  • Liz Williams says:

    I like what Eve says – and, it points to removing Kapler as chief and Fisher as marshal: isn't is their job to find simple solutions like this one rather than cut firefighters or refuse to train them?

  • Arby says:

    This matter raises a number of questions as to how our city does business.

    1. Why are we paying firefighters to drive ambulances to Oakland?

    2. Why are we transporting so many people to Oakland hospitals while at the same time paying to support a public hospital in Alameda?

    3. Why do we need to call for mutual aid for a lone single family home fire?

    4. What happens if, as threatened, the county puts up all the drawbridges at night?

    5. What is going to happen in this community during an earthquake or other major incident?

    6. Are we getting the best value for our tax dollars?

    I know that one can argue that many Alamedans have Kaiser coverage, but that only begs the question as to why our hospital district doesn't establish a relationship with Kaiser to treat Alameda emergencies at Alameda Hospital.

  • Neal_J says:

    Am I the only one repulsed by the union's attempt to use this tragedy to support their "Me First" ballot initiative?

  • David Wickham says:

    As a Kaiser member, I believe that I can be taken to any hospital in an emergency situation.

  • Eve says:

    From the firefighter's union press release about the June 14 fire:

    "At approximately 6:28pm on Sunday 14 JUNE 2009, City of Alameda Firefighters were called to a report of a structure fire at 110 Inverness Way, on Bay Farm Island. At the time of the call, all three of the ALS Ambulances staffed with two firefighters on each of them were busy transporting patients to off island hospitals from unrelated EMS calls. At the time of the initial response there were only four remaining units in service in Alameda with three firefighters on each of them.

    http://www.savealamedafirehouses.com/Save_Alameda

  • Barbara Thomas says:

    Off the point a little, but Alameda Hospital is not a trauma facility, i.e. it does not have a trauma surgeon on duty 24/7. Highland does, Eden does. So the Alameda Hospital is always going to be for simple things, mainly preventative medical treatment. Anytime a real life threatening emergency, car accident, risk of brain injury, our citizens are being transported to Oakland, if it has space. If not, then Eden, and so on until they reach a trauma facility that is not full with patients.

    Why we are subsidizing the doctors at Alameda Hospital is beyond me. Especially when the physician who promoted it, was an obstetrician who delayed his arrival to Alameda Hospital causing serious brain damage and millions of dollars in damage to an unborn child who required a C section, while he delayed.

    If the bridges go up at night, we are reduced to a much lower standard of medical care without Highland.

  • JR says:

    Why can't we use the same system that smaller cities all over the east coast, south, and midwest use? These communities use volunteer firefighters, emts and paramedics to fill out there regular staff. These volunteers go through the same training as the paid staff. They volunteer for shifts that will work around their jobs. They also are available whenever they are not at work for extra shifts. I have participated in a system like this and it provides a more flexible staff to cover times when there are additional community needs i.e. 4th of july, street fairs, etc. without creting a need for overtime pay. It's time for our community to take a reality check. We are not a big city and don't have a huge tax base to draw from. Let's look at alternatives that don't take a lot of addtional funding. By the way most volunteers pay for their own training, uniforms, and basic equipment so those costs aren't there as with full time staff.

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