Is Cal Fire the Right Solution for San Carlos?

March 21, 2010


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.

Posted in:


  1. Pat B on March 22, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Also missing from the Cal Fire proposal are all the services that actually bring money into the City: plan checks, inspections, etc.

  2. anon on March 22, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    CalFire was the right solution for Coastside Fire Protection District(CFPD), right here in San Mateo County. CFPD has 30,000 residents, multistory buildings, wild land interfaces and need for Fire Marshal services. We get all we need from CalFire. CalFire also provides service to Riverside County which includes many “cities” much larger than San Carlos.

    San Carlos doesn’t need a Ladder Truck company. A QUINT and the two properly equipped Engines are capable of meeting the communities needs. There are issues with Hazmat. But, that is a regional issue. Why should San Carlos bear the financial burden for a large part of the Peninsula?

    CalFire isn’t going to leave all the communities it contracts with hanging in California. That contract part of its operation is self funding.

    The price comparison of equivalent services will never be completed to the satisfaction of those advocating the status quo. How did San Carlos get in this financial mess? The simple answer is San Carlos was unwilling to reevaluate how its services were delivered and allowed its neighbors to dictate what services were provided and paid for by the residents of San Carlos. Any competent and motivated Chief could redeploy the resources within San Carlos to meet current requirements within San Carlos. The issue is local control for San Carlos vs. having your fire services dictated by Belmont, neighboring Fire Districts and IAFF Local 2400. CalFire has the demonstrated flexibility to meet your cities needs. They are doing in all over California in many cities very similar to San Carlos.

  3. Robin H on March 22, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    It is interesting to follow the articles on the White Oaks Blog. I commend whoever is responsible for keeping the fire services discussion going, which can take up quite a bit of one’s time. I will preface my comments by stating that I have worked for CAL FIRE since 1971 but I do NOT speak for CAL FIRE nor have I read the proposal that CAL FIRE submitted to the city of San Carlos. I agree with today’s writer that one must compare apples to apples or the financial comparison is useless.

    Many cities and unincorporated communities throughout the state request information from CAL FIRE re the cost of providing fire, medical, haz mat, water rescue and other services. The most practical way for CAL FIRE to provide useful information to those entities is if they provide a thorough Request for Proposal, which is designed to accurately define the level of service which the specific community wants provided. CAL FIRE is then able to provide complete information. CAL FIRE operates truck companies and hazardous materials vehicles in many areas of the state so it is not a question of whether the services can be provided, but rather a question of what the city is asking for. The agency also has many comprehensive fire prevention programs involving plans checking, inspections, disaster preparedness, etc. The local government is responsible for determining fees, if any, that they wish to charge, just like they are responsible for determing the total level of service for their area.

    I wish the citizens and firefighters of San Carlos the best in determining how they can most efficiently continue the level of service they currently enjoy.

  4. San Carlos Considers Outsourcing Police and Fire Services - Bay Area Blog - on March 22, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    […] Gillooley, a resident and realtor, has started an online poll on his White Oaks Blog the issue. (As of this writing, 66 percent of the 181 who answered the poll […]

  5. Justin Tyme on March 22, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    •Hazardous Materials
    •Ladder Truck support

    1st, most hazmat calls can be handled at the lowest level possible, one engine and a BC. for the few and far between calls such as tanker spills, 55 gallon drums of methel ethel bad stuff CAL FIRE trains and employs techs and teams that can handle these calls. i dont know where people get this info from but there are multiple units in the state that have no problem with this topic.

    2nd, i have to agree with ANON about the quint or ladder truck. unless you have a multi story comercial buliding or buildings there isnt a need. If there is a need then CAL FIRE can handle this also, for instance, Gridley City in butte county is run by CAL FIRE and the single station has a engine (staffed with 2) and a truck (staffed with 2 minimum). To say that CAL FIRE cant handle the “extrication” calls is just plain ignorant. CAL FIRE puts on some of the best rescue training in the state, they set the bar on auto extrication with the introduction of auto extrication 3 for the standard level for all employees who are permanant staff.

    as far as same or better service for less, why is it that city departments come to CAL FIRE (state fire marshall classes) for training, why is it that ICS qualifications for large scale urban interface wildland fires are now just getting to city departments but have been a part of CAL FIRE for years, why is there more than one person on the rewrite staff from CAL FIRE for multiple rescue classes? if people would just do a little more research and a little less bashing they would see that they fit the mold for any city looking to come to CAL FIRE.

  6. Mary on March 22, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Then why is that Cal Fire trucks get lost when responding to the unicorporated part of Devonshire Canyon? Perhaps, they don’t know how to use a GPS or read a map? I’ll stick to having San Carlos/Belmont respond to emergency calls.

  7. justin on March 22, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    i dont know about them getting lost, however i do know that human error does happen with anyone behind the wheel. so your comment doesnt make sence, also that is a very small thing to gripe about. i am sure that san carlos/belmont gets lost all the time by missing streets but yet you dont want to talk about that. i dont understand why people are so anti CAL FIRE when they supercede the expectations of the public in every city and county they are in now. change isnt bad when its not that big of a change, CAL FIRE is the right direction for any city that needs to save money.

  8. Chuck Gillooley on March 22, 2010 at 9:32 pm


    In theory, a quint might be a better solution for providing ladder support for the City since it has water capabilities that the current truck doesn’t have. But the reality of the situation is that we have a tiller rig now, and there’s a brand new one being built that will be delivered early next year. (By the way, that was funded entirely by a federal grant, and the City Council approved the contract….so they can’t say a word about it.) So no matter what, we’re committed to a tiller for the foreseeable future.

    But the question of whether we go with a quint or a tiller isn’t the issue. The problem is that the Cal Fire proposal addresses NEITHER. Was that because Cal Fire didn’t take the time to assess what equipment we already have in place, or what we might need to adequately serve a city like San Carlos? I hope not. Or did our City Manager just not ask for a proposal with any extended ladder support? Ditto. But I think waving a proposal in front of our noses stating that we’re going to save $2M by staffing 2 ALS engines is an insult to everyone’s intelligence. I can’t imagine that people in 1001 Laurel, or the Elms, or any of those multi-story apartments and condos have to feel good about that. What are they supposed to do– pray the RWC’s tiller is available to borrow?

    I’m sure Cal Fire is a great organization. But before we get much further down this path, the City owes us a true side-by-side comparison of services. I’ll be shocked if that $2M doesn’t shrivel away to a much smaller number.

    Thanks for your comment…

  9. Chuck Gillooley on March 22, 2010 at 9:38 pm


    I think the biggest problem now is that we don’t know what (or if) the savings will really be. The proposal that was given to San Carlos was a bare-bones, minimal coverage scenario which has no mention of HazMat or ladder support (both of which we have now.) How can we make a true comparison in this situation?

    Thanks for your comment.


  10. justin on March 22, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    i understand your concerns on the “bare bones” but its also up to your city council to include those in when they negotiate with CAL FIREs barganing team. cal fire is always going to underbid any department because it is run by the state, thats how they work, these are all questions you need to bring up to your council when they have open disscusions on the matter. if this is the only place you voice your concerns on the matter than nothing will change. the fact is CAL FIRE offers every thing you can ask for, the thing is you have to ask for it or it will go by the wayside just like in evey thing such as education.

    and if they do get the bid and it doesnt include the haz mat and truck company then it will go to a mutual aid agreement wich isnt bad either because you have stations stacked on top of eachother down there so reponse time will be short and not delayed. all it takes is a little work in CAD in the ECC to get the right eguipment in the right place at the right time.

  11. justin on March 22, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    and a initial proposal can always be amended to fix what the public wants. CAL FIRE is here to serve the public and they have been for 100 years with the highest regards to their safety.

  12. anon on March 22, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    There’s a hint here of what’s to come. This is a very emotional and political issue and it is pointless to look at just the facts and the budgets. At CFPD it was a long nasty political struggle to contract with CalFire. There were all kinds of untrue anonymous allegations against CalFire similar to the one Mary made, above. Local 2400 had their lawyers in our Boards’ faces, circulated two sets of referendum, sued both our Districts(at the time), appealed unsuccessfully all the way to the State Supreme Court and contributed a lot of money to the political campaigns of individuals opposed to CalFire. Today, years later, many people in our District are under the mistaken impression the State took over our District two years ago and the current majority of our Board was elected with Local 2400 campaign contributions. Make no mistake about it, if Local 2400 went to that expense for CFPD with much labor strife, out in the hinterlands, what efforts will they go to protect a model Department in the heart of their territory?

    The service cost argument is a red herring. Here’s why: probably 80 to 90% of the recurring cost for San Carlos’ Fire Service are wages and salary. The CalFire 72 hour “work week” compared to the Local 2400 hour 56 “work week” even with red circled salaries, vacation days and overtime is far more cost effective. Looking at other costs excluding Engine staffing, long term San Carlos will only pay for the increments, it actually uses, because those resources are drawn from a two County CalFire pool. At this stage, there is not a detailed RFP for CalFire to respond to. If San Carlos is serious about perusing contracting with CalFire, The City and CalFire can iterate the RFP, contracts and schedules closer and closer to the cities actual costs over the months ahead. If all San Carlos is interested in a “budgetary quote” from CalFire to use as a bargaining chip to beat up Belmont and intimidate other local Districts into a beat this price or we won’t form a regional partnership with you, then don’t expect CalFire to put a lot of effort into refining the final costs. If history is any indication, Belmont and the other Districts won’t bargain, and the City will be left to refine the contracts and schedules with CalFire. The other Departments can’t beat CalFire’s price, can’t legally subsidize San Carlos and will be reluctant to break ranks with Local 2400.

  13. anon on March 23, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Chuck Gillooley,

    Sorry, I missed your previous post, when I jumped on the end.

    I’m not familiar with your Tiller. The big question is how many Firefighters does it take to staff it normally and how many does it take to just drive it to an incident, where other engines and Firefighters are already there. When you answer that, you can go to schedule A and pull out the Engineers and add them up for your Tiller. As others have noted, CalFire doesn’t market their services, they respond to RFP’s. It’s fairly easy to quote regular engines(Cpt. FF/PM and FF)and hard to say exactly how BSC JPA current functions would be split.

    I suspect the City is only at the budgetary quote stage. I’m pretty confident CalFire can do what ever San Carlos requires and do it far cheaper than San Carlos could on their own. However, if there are true economies of scale with Belmont that may not be true. However, it’s better to do an objective requirements assessment as if San Carlos were on their own and ask does the current BSC JPA service delivery model still fit? If a ladder truck is only used a couple of times a year and it costs two Firefighters, training, maintenance and replacement reserves is it worth $500K/year? Fire Departments are supposed to be asking those questions continuously, not buying new equipment and institutionalizing it just because that is how the game is played. The service is constantly changing. Medical calls are more frequent, car accidents slightly less injuries and fewer fires.

  14. Pat B on March 23, 2010 at 6:03 am

    It sure looks like Cal Fire has sent out word to its employees all over the State. People are weighing in on the great services Cal Fire provides elsewhere though they know nothing about our situation.

  15. Abby on March 23, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    I heard from a San Carlos employee yesterday that we have 80 fire fighters currently working in Belmont/San Carlos. This seems excessive. Imagine the health benefits and retirement. Is this true? If so, we need and can trim ALOT of waste.

  16. Chuck Gillooley on March 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Hi Abby,

    Thanks for your comment. 80 seems pretty high — the figure that I have seen for both San Carlos and Belmont is about 42.


  17. Mike Young on March 25, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    Having worked in Riverside County for Cal Fire which is probably the largest state contracted fire department in the nation I have witnessed and been a part of what Cal Fire truly has to offer in the Municiple realm of firefighting. Having worked in a city that ran 4 person staffed tiller companies which ran 100 plus working structure fires a year the type of environment that exists in San Carlos is nothing new for many employees within this deaprtment. I have to agree with many of the posts above that are quick to jump to conclusions about what Cal FIres true capabilities are, this department is no longer a Wildland department of the past but rather a full all risk department.

    Also people must keep in mind that Cal Fire does not go out seeking to take over established city fire departments rather the cities are the ones approaching Cal Fire. If a level of service is asked for by the council that prepares a proposal than it will be met and it will be met to the highest level! What must be done in the end is the best thing for the wellfair of the city. If that means a contract with Cal Fire than the contract should be supported and the bad mouthing and rumors must stop. In the end it is true that Cal Fire will more than likely always come out with a less expensive bid for service its just a matter if the unions the people and the current department are willing to except it.

  18. Mike on April 12, 2010 at 6:37 pm


    Both yourself an Anon, although well meaning are hugely uninformed about fire service delivery and practice. First, to compare Cal Fire to your local Fire Department is simply unfair. Cal Fire employees are professional firefighters and that’s where the similarities end. Once the large campaign fires in the state begin – local resources are moved elsewhere and the crews staffing you local stations could be from ANYWHERE. These replacements would know nothing about your local buildings, or the practices of the agencies they would be expected to interact with. ALS staffing is a huge question mark for Cal Fire because they simply don’t pay enough to keep these professionals on their staff. We need to look no further than Station 17 where 50% of the time they can’t provide Paramedic coverage and rely on their boundary-drop partners. CFPD solves this another way – they beat the heck out of their Paramedics and make them work up to 10 or more shifts on end. Until they give up and leave for slower systems elsewhere.
    Chuck, a quint is a bad ideal all around. It would be like expecting you to be a real estate agent and an interior decorator and do them at the same time. The reason BSCFDand other municipalities use tractor-drawn aerial apparatus is because it works. And by the way – resources on the scene are usually committed to other tasks as they are all part of three man engine companies.
    Are either of you aware that Cal fire has been through over 100 employees in the 2 years that they have been the CFPD provider? Did you know that Cal Fire does not conduct background checks on their employees? That they allow felons into their ranks?
    This is not an apples to apples comparison. I live in an area served by Cal Fire. I live with the fluctuating service levels and lower caliber employees. Cal Fire is currently in the process of cutting their employees pay by 5%, requiring them to pay another 5% to their retirement and reducing their hours by 5%. A 15% reduction all together. How excited do you think their employees will be to have to work in San Mateo County? Get ready for more turnover, Less experienced officers and bad service all-around.
    Yes, Cal Fire does it all but will the people in your stations at your time of need have the ability to do it? I doubt it.

  19. Chuck Gillooley on April 12, 2010 at 6:58 pm


    Thanks very much for your comment. I think you might have my position mixed up with another commenter on this site because I don’t disagree with your points at all — my point all along has been that the CalFire proposal is NOT an apples to apples comparison. I have stated many times that there’s nothing in their proposal about tractor-driven tiller support. Many people don’t know that a brand-new Seagrave tiller is being built for the San Carlos/Belmont FD right now. This rig is funded by a FEMA grant, so it doesn’t come out of the general fund. But what are supposed to do with this rig when it’s delivered early next year if there’s no crew to man it — hang Christmas lights from it?

    With a staff of just two ALS engines, we’re really left with no decent ladder support unless we call for help from another city. I’d rather not be at the mercy of another community’s FD availability if there’s an emergency at the Elms, the SamTrans building, or 1001 Laurel.

    I don’t know about the other stats that you claim, but make no doubt — I am not in favor of outsourcing either our fire OR police departments.

    Thanks again for your post.

    I have been against outsourcing or

  20. Mike on April 12, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    Sorry, I did get your intent mixed up a bit. Thanks for the reply. By the way, you’re right about the Truck being ordered and about the importance of your community having that resource staffed and trained properly.

  21. Robin on April 15, 2010 at 3:00 am

    Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting and productive conversation has deteriorated to a campaign of inaccurate information, wild claims and, seemingly, deliberately incorrect statements. Too bad. I wish well for all the honest people who have posted.

  22. Js on June 10, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Im sorry this turned into a bashing of Cal Fire but a lot of you are ill informed. Cal fire is the third largest department in the US and we are an all risk department. We have everything from haz-mat crews to tillers to air attack to water rescue. And we also provide ALS to countys who want a contract. We will and can do anything Belmont-San Carlos ff can do better and for cheaper. I am very proud to work for them and it is a great department. Our employees are very proud to represent us and we dont rape the community of money like most of these Po-Dunk departments who are overpaid and underworked. Some of these department pay their emloyees over 100k a year and work 10 days a month? no wonder they are broke. Oh and your new tiller truck will still get delivered it will just say cal fire on the side and have real firefighters on it. We will staff your tiller and haz-mat trucks chuck so dont worry bout that.

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