Standalone Fire Department Still an Option for San Carlos.

February 26, 2011

Few Choices.

With the number of choices for providing fire service to San Carlos dwindling as the October dissolution of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire JPA looms nearer, the option of having a standalone fire department in San Carlos is once again on the table, according to this article in the Mercury News.   When the County of San Mateo effectively blocked the option of extending its contract with CalFire to cover San Carlos, it left Redwood City as the only interested suitor to provide fire services to the City of Good Living.  And like any good governing body, the City Council of San Carlos wants more than one option to consider, especially for a critical service such as this.

Supporting a standalone fire department is a costly proposition, as San Carlos and many other communities on the Peninsula have determined.  It will likely take a restructuring of the fire organization, or some method of increasing revenue (or both) to make it an economically sustainable model.  And that has been a tall order to fill lately in San Carlos.

Is a County-Wide Fire Department in Our Future?

San Carlos is not alone in its struggle to find an economically feasible method for providing fire services to its community.    Even the City of Belmont recently analyzed their own budget and came to the conclusion that they won't have the funds to support their own standalone fire department —  despite the fact that they already have a dedicated stream of funding from their general budget.   And there isn't a day that goes by that you don't hear about some other Peninsula community that's fighting the exact same budget battle.

With more Peninsula communities seriously considering the path that San Carlos chose to provide police service through the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department, the question begs to be asked:  Should we have a true San Mateo County Fire Department? (i.e. not one that's simply contracted out through another entity such as CalFire.)

The economies of scale would be remarkable for an an arrangement like this.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Centralized County Dispatch.   That's already in place today.
  • Reduced Administrative Overhead.   No need for 20+ fire chiefs in a streamlined organization.
  • Buying Power.   If the County standardizes on fire fighting equipment, it would have much more buying power than each municipality would on its own.
  • Boundary Drop.   In theory, this arrangement should make it easier to manage calls that extend across city boundaries, since there's only one organization to coordinate.

Obviously, this option is much more simple in theory.  The reality is that such an arrangement would be incredibly complicated to create with so many communities involved.  But if the Sheriff's Department model is so successful for small communities like San Carlos, you have to think a similar model for fire services isn't too far behind.

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  1. pat b on February 26, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    I beg to differ. “[A]ny good governing body” would not be in this untenable position. The ruling troika has backed us into this corner because they thought if they burned all their other bridges we would have to go with CalFire, which is what they wanted in the first place. Andy has essentially admitted that in interviews. The State and the County both said “no” because they have to take care of their own responsibilities, not ours.

    I’m hearing support for three departments in SM Co: North, Central, and South, not provided by CalFire but by merging city departments. I think San Carlos will eventually be part of such a department, but right now the behavior of our representatives has put others off. They’re all new at politics, and they have no people skills. Get a CD of their appearances in front of the Board of Supervisors’ subcommittee for proof of this. Omar and Randy essentially told the Supervisors: we’re smarter than you are, and you should follow us. Insult the people you’re asking to help you, brilliant! Then Andy got up and had a tantrum about nobody wants to help us, it’s all their fault. Who could turn down an opportunity to work with a spoiled two-year-old? Evidently, most people, including San Mateo.

    The option I have not heard any discussion about is taking advantage of the report prepared by the consultants we paid thousands of dollars to advise us. The consultants said not to go with CalFire and mentioned several ways to save money if they hadn’t sent the dissolution letter to Belmont. Too bad they didn’t get the consultants’ report before they jumped off the cliff and sent the letter. But remember, they’re smarter than anyone else. Had they had more information and a little humility, they’d have lots of choices.

    We could also buy fire service from Belmont for the next couple of years while the regional plan is put together in a smart, thoughtful way, using the consultants’ report. That’s an option that has been suggested by the Belmont Mayor and by me, but I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it. Andy could buy reduced service, which would save money, which is what he says he wants. Of course, that would mean increased response times, etc., in White Oaks, but that doesn’t seem to concern him.

    We have only one option because our rulers are not willing to explore other options. They’re still acting like bullies, even though that strategy hasn’t worked so far. The beginning of the end was Randy’s appointment of Andy and Omar to the Fire Board. It’s all been downhill from there. But they know better than anyone else.

    Sure, we can have a stand-alone department. It just means every property owner has to pay several hundred dollars a month in a parcel tax. Fat chance!

  2. Anonymous on February 26, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Weren’t you one of the people who wanted to put a ballot measure together to stop the contract with the Sheriff’s office? I just read on the San Carlos patch that the transition has received a 98% satisfaction level. But I didn’t need an article to tell me that. From everything I have seen and heard we have an increase in copsl for less money. So it seems like the “troika”, as you call them, may know what they are doing. You wanted to stop this transition and said it would be a disaster for our city. Why are we supposed to think that you are right about fire?

  3. pat bell on February 27, 2011 at 3:21 am

    And why should anyone bother with a councilman who won’t reveal his name?

  4. Jim on February 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Hate to say this but Pat’s right. Stand alone Fire Department? Okay so get rid of our Police, Parks and Recs and outsource whatever else we can to save money but let’s have a stand alone Fire Department. Where is the cost savings in that? Your 98% approval rate is a joke, crime is up expandentally. Wait till four years from now so will be the Sheriff Office price tag. Get Bob and Matt to fix this mess. Learn from Belmont, a professional City Council and Mayor. No Valentines hearts all over the Dias, no chugging Red Bulls and Rock Star energy drinks. Running a city is completely different then running a start up. Also, there’s no crying in politics.

  5. Thomas on March 1, 2011 at 1:07 am

    The county and the union are not blameless entities here. Someone interfered with the bidding process to keep a CalFire deal from happening. And now it becomes clear San Mateo County knows it can collectively save $17 million annually by regionalizing fire services, and is stalling for time, possibly because they don’t want to pick a fight with their own city fire unions. The timing of both these developments is unfortunate, but I can’t see the taxpayers of the county leaving that large a sum of money on the table for long.

    As to the JPA, I do not understand why more San Carlans aren’t bitter over the ever-increasing subsidy that San Carlos pays to operate Belmont’s fire department. Every year we are paying an ever increasing percentage of costs to the JPA for the same services, while Belmont pays a smaller and smaller share. Based on my understanding, if we continue with the JPA, the prevailing trend would be for San Carlos to continue to shoulder the majority of any cost increases, and provide us with no opportunity to make any corrections to re-balance the cost equation. Ergo, our only cost-control option is to exit the JPA.

    If anyone has facts which are contrary to these points, I’m all ears.

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