Solana Beach firefighters to discuss staffing concerns at Wednesday meeting

By Claire Harlin

Staff Writer

As the city of Solana Beach faces a nearly $700,000 budget deficit, local firefighters are asking the community to come together at the Aug. 24 City Council meeting to oppose a proposal on the table that could reduce fire engine staffing. As of yet, no such cuts have been recommended or approved by the city.

The public hearing will be held at 5 p.m. at the city’s council chambers, located at 635 S. Highway 101, and the council’s regular meeting will follow at 6 p.m.

The standard and current staffing model requires teams of six firefighters — three per apparatus. In the case that a team member is on leave or calls in, the proposed model wouldn’t bring in an overtime firefighter as a replacement, dropping the number of responders to five. City Manager David Ott said this overtime shift generally pays about $800 to $900.

Concern comes as the city is trying to approve its 2011-12 budget. For the first time in history, Ott said, the council in June postponed the adoption of the budget so that city staff could form committees in the meantime to come up with possible cuts. When the fire department was asked by the city to come up with possible solutions, a model that excludes overtime fill-ins came to the table.

“It’s not just picking on the firefighters. We are looking into everything,” said Ott. “One of the specific things is to look at, though, is the firefighters’ overtime because it has gone up a lot.”

Ott said he asked every department in the city — including the lifeguards, Sheriff, public works, city clerk and finance director — to come up with possible ways to trim the budget and report back to him. Last year, the city faced the same deficit, but borrowed about $600,000 from the city’s reserve fund to avoid cuts.

“There are really no good options,” said Ott, who has served as the fire chief for both Del Mar and Solana Beach. “I knew it was going to be tough, but we can’t keep dipping into the reserves. At this rate, if we keep dipping into the reserves, we won’t be a city for long.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, fire officials will be present to explain the possible impacts to citizens if staff reductions occur.

“City Manager Ott has not stated outright that he will maintain minimum staffing of three personnel per frontline fire apparatus,” reads a memo on the Solana Beach Firefighters’ website. Fire official also provide on their website documentation of studies suggesting that two personnel in an apparatus is an unacceptable way to deliver emergency services.

John Siberell, a Solana Beach Fire Department engineer and paramedic of 15 years, said he attended several of the information-gathering meetings, in which possible cuts were proposed at the request and under the direction of city officials.

“Nothing has been put forth, but it’s not off the table,” he said.

The department has been operating well under the current protocol for so long that it would be hard to say what could happen if staffing were to drop in some circumstances, Siberell said, adding that the only time he has heard of having reduced staffing is in times of disaster, such as during the wildfires of 2007.

“The concern is that the level of service we’ve been providing our citizens shouldn’t be taken away,” he said. “When taxpayers call 9-1-1, there is a certain level of service citizens should expect, and that’s what we need to maintain.”