Fire Station Brown-Out is a Black Eye for San Carlos.

July 9, 2012


Station 16 to go Brown.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way.

2 years ago, when the San Carlos City Council flew against the tide of public opinion and opted to terminate its fire service agreement with neighboring Belmont, the promise of “same service, less cost” confidently emanated from the City Council Chambers.   It had a familiar echo to it, as it was the same mantra that predicated the decision to outsource police services in San Carlos to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department.  With the structural deficit facing the city, retaining its own public safety departments didn't appear to be a feasible option.

But while the genesis of the two “new” departments seems similar on the surface, they now appear to be on distinctly different paths.

Manpower Shortage.

Last week, the Redwood City Fire Department (which now manages the San Carlos Fire Department) announced that Station 16 at 1280 Alameda will be shut down about 1/3 of the time over the next few months.   The culprit?  It's not money this time… at least not directly.  Staffing, or lack thereof, is the reason behind the brown-out of Station 16.

2 years ago when negotiations started to turn south between San Carlos and Belmont regarding the future of the JPA, and San Carlos started hinting about starting its own fire department, cautions were issued about being able to ramp up a brand new department in such a short amount of time.  Even with the 18-month “divorce” period that was contractually required for the dissolution of the JPA, it was an aggressive goal — especially with all of the work required to divvy up fire assets between the two cities.

According to this article in the Daily News by Bonnie Eslinger, the department has had difficulties achieving the desired staffing level of 24 fire fighting positions, partly because of unexpected attrition and resignations, and partly because the starting salary being offered by San Carlos is one of the lowest on the Peninsula, according to the article.

To backfill, Redwood City has had to use their own firefighters to make up the difference in staffing the San Carlos station — an arrangement that will cost the City of San Carlos approximately $400,000 to reimburse Redwood City for the manpower.    It appears that the next step, rather than continue to pay Redwood City extra money to keep the station open, is to close it periodically.

And for those residents who live near Station 16, that option simply stinks.


According to Deputy Fire Chief Stan Maupin, the short-term solution shouldn't hurt response times.  “The one thing we want to make sure everyone understands is that San Mateo County works on a borderless system,” Maupin said. “Redwood City or Belmont could respond. … We do that every day.”

Yes, the County works on a border-less system.  Fire crews will rotate to different stations all the time for coverage when a particular crew is out on a call.  But is it really possible to replicate the same response time when the system is short one full crew?  Look at it another way — when Station 16 is closed, the nearest stations are the following:

  • Station 13:  1.77 miles away
  • Station 12: 1.83 miles
  • Station 18: 2.4 miles

It's hard to fathom how the response time can be the same for a station that's a few blocks away versus run one that's nearly 2 miles?

The Future of Station 16?

In the bigger picture, this may be a glimpse of things to come.  As Redwood City looks at its expanded coverage over both cities, it is re-evaluating where its fire stations should be located.   And from firefighters that I've spoken with, Station 16 looks to be expendable, and it leads the hit-list for a possible station closure/consolidation.

So maybe residents (like me) who have grown comfortable having an outstanding fire station so close by need to get accustomed to it not being there much longer…

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  1. Anonymous on July 9, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    I can imagine that some people’s response time may be quicker since many San Carlans live closer to those other stations.

  2. AB on July 9, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    This was poor planning on the City’s part. They rushed this and now we the citizens will pay the price. The reason they can’t hire is because the pay and benefits for any new fire fighter is horrible. Think what you want about public employee pensions and pay, but the market place dictates these things and if you are not going to pay a comparable rate then no one with the qualifications will take the job. This was all done just to save a buck. Thanks Andy, Randy and Omar (RIP).

  3. Barbara on July 10, 2012 at 12:26 am

    Does anyone notice, right behind that fire station are brown hills full of dry brush and trees?!! We just hiked Eaton Trail and I noticed many fallen dead trees, as well. I clearly don’t think that station is expendable, particularly in the summer. Also, it seems this station has the best accessibility to 280?

  4. Sylvia on July 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    The western part of San Carlos is an area that could be the next Oakland Hills disaster. We need the Alameda station fully staffed and ready to go full time.

  5. Anonymous on July 11, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    To fight a fire there have to be four firefighters. So the three at the Alameda station can’t fight fire on their own. They have to wait for another vehicle to show up. There is another fire station located one block from the San Carlos border in the South-West corner of town. They can just as quickly get to a fire in the hills as the Alameda guys. The city was on the news awhile ago about combining these stations anyways, so it is more than likely that the Alameda station will probably get closed sooner or later. They say that it is redudant.

    Also, three cities in California have gone bankrupt in two weeks. I think we could be facing much worse problems than a station that is closed 33.3% of the time.

  6. Chuck Gillooley on July 12, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    Here’s another article about the same topic, which puts the possibility of brown-outs running all the way to February:

  7. Chuck Gillooley on July 12, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks for your comment. The bigger concern in what will surely become a longer response time is not as much for actual fires as it will be for medical calls. I would guess that over 80% of their runs today are for medical aid, not for fires. The first few minutes in a life threatening situation are often the difference between survival and non-survival.

    Regarding the San Bernadino bankruptcy, I don’t believe that staying with the existing (or slightly modified) San Carlos-Belmont JPA was going to put San Carlos into bankruptcy — if anyone with more in-depth knowledge of the budget can state otherwise, please do. But we’ve already spent an additional $400K in unexpected staffing fees, so the new arrangement now can’t be much cheaper than what we had before.

    The bottom line is that the decision to dissolve the JPA was made in haste, and it’s obvious that plans to handle a worst-case scenario like we’re seeing now was simply not well thought out by the City Council at that time.

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