Privatization of Fire Services Divides Residents, Council in San Carlos.

April 24, 2011


Here We Go Again.

Just as the dust seemed to settle from the impassioned debate regarding outsourcing police services in San Carlos to an outside agency, the San Carlos City Council must again decide whether to do the same with the other critical element of public safety in San Carlos:  Fire services.  After a lengthy mediation over the weekend failed to save the Joint Powers Agreement with Belmont, both cities left the table in different directions to seek their own solutions for providing fire services before the October dissolution of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department.

The failure to revive the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department now leaves the City Council with the following three alternatives to provide fire services to the City of San Carlos:

  1. Create an standalone San Carlos Fire Department.
  2. Merge fire services with Redwood City.
  3. Outsource to a private company – Wackenhut Services.

The latter two solutions are the ones being most strongly considered by the City Council, since a standalone department isn't economically feasible with the current budget deficit.  And it's the choice between these two that is polarizing many in the City of Good Living.

Firefighters Against Privatization.

This past weekend, nearly 100 firefighters canvassed the City of San Carlos distributing flyers that decry the option of outsourcing fire services to Wackenhut.  Unlike the police solution where a known, local entity (San Mateo County Sheriff's Department) took over the reins, the fire solution is a bit more nebulous.  Wackenhut, a company that specializes in security and emergency services, is a corporation that is located out of state, so there is a palpable uneasiness with many about handing over such a critical piece of public safety to a corporation that doesn't appear to have a single firefighting contract in the state of California.

Still, many are still divided about the merits of this approach, whether it's San Carlos residents or even members of the City Council, as is evident in this report:

Redwood City is the Right Choice.

While Wackenhut is very likely a solid organization and their proposal *may* save the City some funds up front over the Redwood City proposal, I think it's important that the City Council takes a long, hard look at the strategic direction of fire services not only in San Carlos, but throughout San Mateo County.  Communities throughout the county such as San Bruno and Millbrae have already merged, and others are very seriously considering working on some sort of a hybrid model (Foster City/San Mateo.)    As I have said before on this site, I could easily see in the next 20 years the emergence of a single, unified fire department that's run by the county and that serves the entire county — or something very close to it.   We're already heading in that direction today.

That makes merging fire services with Redwood City a logical step in that direction.   Privatization is not.

Much like law enforcement, fire services rely heavily on the mutual planning and cooperation from surrounding communities for boundary coverage and more important, response to large-scale disasters (i.e. San Bruno)    San Carlos can't afford the risk of being the broken arrow in the bigger picture.  For that very reason, the City Council absolutely made the right call by aligning with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement.  And for that very reason, they now need to make the same decision and make the Redwood City/San Carlos fire merger work.

Decision Time?

With the October deadline creeping closer every week, the Council may very well decide the future of the San Carlos Fire Department in the next City Council meeting, which is Monday April 25 at 7:00 PM in the City Council Chambers.    The Firefighters Union Local 2400 are organizing a strong opposition to this plan, and will be there in force at Monday night's meeting.

If you have a strong opinion one way or the other about fire services in San Carlos, be sure to show up to this meeting.  It may be the only chance you'll have to speak your mind before this crucial decision is made.



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  1. pat b on April 25, 2011 at 4:46 am

    San Carlos was way ahead of the regionalization curve. We had a solid JPA that was working well and was due to be updated, if needed.

    Then Andy waltzed into office unopposed, and that made three votes in favor of destroying our fire department. They have violated their own code of ethics and State law; they have accused other elected officials of all kinds of malfeasance; they have kept secret what should have been public and publicized what should have been private; but they did what they set out to do. Our outstanding fire department is dead.

    If we contract with Redwood City to supervise firefighters hired and paid by San Carlos, Redwood City has admitted that they will hire the best, most experienced of our firefighters and pay them more than San Carlos does.

    If we contract with Wackenhut, which has a very shady reputation and no experience in providing small town fire service, we will not have the well trained, experienced firefighters we have now, because they are union and Wackenhut hires scabs. If and when those scabs turn into real firefighters, they will join the union and get good jobs too.

    So either way, we have a perpetually rookie fire department, a training stage in their careers. Training a firefighter is very expensive if you do it right. Has the cost of constantly training new hires for other departments been factored into the supposed cost savings?

    How long will neighboring departments continue to fill in for our rookies when we can’t reciprocate in kind? Other departments can charge us if we use their services more than they use ours, but what do they do if they don’t trust our department to serve their communities? How will the union firefighters feel about working along side these rookies and picking up the slack because San Carlos is too cheap to pay for experienced people? Our firefighters have stuck with us even though they’ve been treated very, very badly. They will probably still do their best for us.

    If we go with the Redwood City Hybrid proposal, San Carlos will be negotiating with the firefighters’ union. That same union offered to negotiate with us, starting with a 10% compensation reduction, in April of LAST YEAR, but they made the mistake of sending the letter to the then-Mayor, Randy Royce. He did not turn it over to the city, so it didn’t become part of the public record and wasn’t shared with the rest of the council, at least not officially. We don’t know whether he shared it with his buddies, but it didn’t go through the normal channels, as it should have. We do know that we’ve been told over and over that the firefighters refused to negotiate. As I recall, we went through this with the police as well. The POA kept begging the city to meet with them, and the city kept saying the POA wouldn’t negotiate. The firefighters were smart enough to send a letter, not knowing that it would be “lost.”

    Here’s a cautionary tale about a small town that hired a private fire service provider because they couldn’t get along with the neighboring town. Sound familiar?

    Direct Link:

  2. km on April 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    I totally agree with you. If we are forced to not have a stand alone fire department then the better of the two options is to merge with Redwood City. Imagine if you ever have a fire at your house and call 911 and this Wackenhut outfit shows up with maybe not the right equipment or experienced employees and your house will be totally destroyed and what if there are people trapped inside? Are you willing to gamble? I’m for one am not.

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