A Great Partner — But Maybe Not the Right Solution.
Before anyone fires up the hate mail, this post is NOT about bashing Cal Fire. Quite the contrary. Cal Fire’s business model of providing rapid-response advanced life support (ALS), combined with wild-land fire expertise is a perfect fit for the communities that they serve locally, such as Emerald Hills, La Honda, and some of the remote parts of San Mateo. Their economy of scale, and expertise in covering large remote geographic locations adds significant value that these communities couldn’t provide on their own. They’ve become ubiquitous in the growing communities in the Sierra Foothills.
And make no mistake, Cal Fire and the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Departments already work together on a daily basis. Between multiple engine responses, station coverages, and multi-agency training, these departments must work seamlessly together. In talking with the local firefighters in San Carlos, they have had nothing but positive things to say about the crews that staff the local Cal Fire stations.
But when you examine the focus and core strengths that make Cal Fire a great fit for their current communities and compare them to the unique requirements posed by San Carlos, one has to wonder whether they’re right solution for San Carlos — or, whether San Carlos is a good fit for Cal Fire.
Key Elements Missing?
From a firefighting standpoint, San Carlos differs quite a bit from Emerald Hills and La Honda in several areas. San Carlos has multi-story buildings, blocks of industrial companies, and a heavily traveled freeway to protect — things that are not prevalent in the aforementioned communities. San Carlos is currently staffed with the equipment and personnel (although they could use more of both) to address these unique requirements — but this equipment is missing from the Cal Fire proposal that was submitted to the City of San Carlos.
If you recall, the City Manager of San Carlos is touting a savings of $1.2M-$2M annually by outsourcing fire service in San Carlos to Cal Fire. Cal Fire’s proposed solution is to staff two stations with single, ALS engines (much like the one you currently see at the top of this post.) But there are two key services that San Carlos requires that are not accounted for in this proposal:
- Hazardous Materials (HazMat).
- Ladder Truck support (pictured at right)
Station 13 in San Carlos is currently the HazMat center for San Mateo County. HazMat support is critical for San Carlos and its neighboring communities. Let’s not forget that much of the area between El Camino and Industrial Road is packed with auto paint shops and other industrial ventures that use some pretty noxious chemicals.
And with more multi-story developments already built or on the drawing board (1001 Laurel, Transit Village), as well as the increasing number of two-story remodels popping up in San Carlos, what solution is being proposed for high-elevation firefighting and rescue that our ladder truck crew provides? It’s important to note that the current ladder truck also carries the “jaws of life” and other extrication and stabilization equipment that’s needed for critical automobile accidents.
“The Same or Better Service.”
Several council members have already stated on record that outsourcing our public safety only makes sense if we can provide the same or better service at a lower cost to the City, and that’s absolutely the right way to approach a “paradigm shift” such as this. But doesn’t appear from just the cursory analysis above that the service proposed by Cal Fire is either — it’s not the same, let alone better than what we have right now.
It’s probably a safe bet to assume that the $1.2M-$2M savings that is being so aggressively pushed by the City Manager would decrease significantly if these additional services were accounted for in the Cal Fire proposal. In other words, if we’re supposed to “benchmark” the two solutions, shouldn’t it be an apples-to-apples service comparison? As it stands now, it’s like comparing an apple to an onion.
What Does the Future Hold?
The final topic that should be addressed before we proceed much further is the future of this proposed agreement. What is the contingency plan if outsourcing doesn’t work out? What happens if the State of California chooses to re-focus Cal Fire on their core competency of wild-land fire support, and discontinues urban fire support? As Asst City Manager Brian Moura pointed out at last week’s budget meeting, it’s very difficult to turn back once we have gone down the path of outsourcing.
The bottom line is that we need a true price comparison of equivalent services. What we have right now from Cal Fire is a vanilla solution to a much more complex problem.
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