Sacramento Fire Department – An Agency in Crisis

Chris Harvey – Sacramento Area Firefighters, Local 522

The Sacramento Fire Department has a proud tradition stretching back over 159 years. In a recent Sacramento Press article by Jim Doucette, the history of the department was described in detail. He sheds some light on the day-to-day operations and gives a good idea of a typical day in the life of a Sacramento firefighter. But your Sacramento firefighters are currently involved in the fight of their lives, and it’s not one they signed up for when they took the oath of office and swore to protect your lives and property. Your firefighters are fighting for the very survival of the department as we know it. The Sacramento City Council continues in their efforts to reduce staffing, lay off firefighters, and drastically lower the level of public safety in Sacramento. A few facts and figures will serve to illustrate this assertion:

From 1977 to 2007, the population that the Sacramento Fire Department serves has increased from 268,000 to over 520,000. This is an increase of almost 100%. Fire Department calls for service increased from 15,000 to over 68,000 per year, an increase of almost 400%. But no additional fire companies have been added since 1977. Sacramento firefighters on average run more calls than their counter parts in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. There were over 70,000 calls for service in 2008, an average of 200 incidents a day. And yet the City is proposing to eliminate 50 fire department positions, including 44 layoffs, and maintain rotating engine closures. This means longer response times, fewer firefighters at the scene, increased safety risks to citizens and firefighters, and higher overtime costs. Most alarmingly, the City is also proposing to reduce engine staffing from four (the industry standard) to three. This translates to slower and less effective response; increased insurance and Workers Compensation costs; greater risk of property damage, injury, and death; and less effective medical response. Every city on the entire West Coast with a population density and size equivalent to Sacramento staffs its fire equipment with at least four firefighters. Three-person staffing is typically used in rural, suburban, or small-town fire departments.

Each call is potentially life threatening and time critical, whether a fire or a medical aid. A typical fire will double in size for every minute of burning, and it is essential in densely populated urban areas to get firefighters on scene and actively fighting fire quickly. In medical emergencies, brain death due to lack of oxygen occurs after 4 minutes. For a drowning or heart attack victim, an additional minute of delayed treatment often means the difference between life and death. With the confluence of two major rivers, Sacramento already has a higher-than-average death rate due to drowning. In 2006 Sacramento led Central Valley Cities in fire-related property loss at $33.1 million, reduced staffing could potentially double that number. The civilian fire death rate in Sacramento is 2 to 3 times that of comparable cities, and a reduction in staffing could increase that rate dramatically. Studies in major cities show up to 54% more firefighter injuries with three-person crews vs. four-person crews, resulting in higher Workers Compensation costs. Reduced staffing response per engine could result in re-classification of the city’s ISO rating, meaning higher insurance rates.

The city says everyone needs to do their part to close a $50 million budget deficit. But look at some of the things public money is being used for at the same time we talk about putting your safety at risk:

$5.4 million … to subsidize development of nightclubs on K Street, including one with a “Mermaid Bar”
$55 million … for 32 acres of land at the Sacramento rail yard, at nearly six-times its market value;
$18.6 million … to buy out nine properties on K Street, at three times their assessed value;
$5.4 million … to extend a riverfront “sidewalk to nowhere”
$4 million … to subsidize the temporary relocation of the Greyhound Bus Station.

The Sacramento Fire Department budget has been chronically under-funded for years. Most cities spend about 66% of the budget on public safety – but the City of Sacramento spends less than 50%. Emergency call volume has increased significantly over the last 15 years, and we cannot currently meet the National Fire Protection Association recommended standards for dispatch, response and drive time. We understand the city budget is stretched thin, but firefighters need more resources, not less. Large swaths of new development in Sacramento are without adequate fire or emergency medical coverage. The Fire Department has been reduced over the years in the face of increasing population growth and increasing call volume. Your firefighters have been doing more with less for decades, and we do not believe that this is the time to cut fire department funding or staffing. Please contact your City Council member to voice your concerns over public safety cuts.

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March 5, 2009 | 10:51 AM

Great statistics in here – it looks like you really did some thorough research. I had no idea that Sacramento got more calls on average than New York City, LA, San Francisco. I like the details about fires doubling in size every minute and how an extra minute can mean life or death during a heart attack, etc. It’s wonderful to get another voice on here, thank you for taking the time to highlight this issue.

March 5, 2009 | 1:00 PM

I agree that this article contains so much great information (and photographs) that it deserves recognition. It seems that Mr. Harvey used statistics and facts to supplement his article, making it a critical and timely read. This article also highlights the fact that firefighters are important, sometimes being the difference between life and death, and makes me wish that the Sac Fire Department thrives even in this struggling economy.

March 5, 2009 | 5:03 PM

Tough to balance needs and wants many of the items you list on expenditures will help create a vital revenue stream, though not “right now” likely in the future. Problems the Mayor and council need to address are the programs and expenditures that do not or will not generate revenue, but are rather a drain. The Mayor has bragged about preventing brown outs, but obviously cuts needed to be made in other areas, and that is going towards personnel. Already the Probation Department in the county has laid off a ton of employees, thus no one is watching the probationers, “….the wheel keeps turning & it won’t slow down” . It is a vicious circle, and many of us are waiting for some news from the City. Maybe the mayor can hold a Fire summit next! Every job in one department saved is another lost somewhere else. BTW what does overtime look like at Sac Fire? What has the fire department done to cut costs, to save jobs? Are there outsourcing that can be done? consolidation? Just thoughts – I really respect and thank every public safety person out there, I am married to one & realize that all the pieces of the public safety puzzle have a vital roll in the safety, quality of life not to mention piece of mind! Thank you to all

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March 6, 2009 | 6:23 AM

So, if the city is willing to cut other services to save the firefighters, will the firefighters be willing to reduce their pension packages and other benefits? And what’s been the rate of pay raises in the last five years when the region was benefiting from an economic boom? Firefighters are a critical service, but if there’s no money, there’s no money. Let’s not forget what makes up the other part of that small-by-percentage public safety budget.

March 10, 2009 | 4:44 PM

Firefighting isn’t a critical service. It is THE critical service. Without it we become the Wild West once again. Overtime costs the City less money than hiring more firefighters. The OVERHEAD costs of one new employee’s, training, benefits, retirement, medical, dental, uniforms, boots, food, etc. would be more than the overtime worked by all of the firefighters noted in the Sacramento Bee’s article. So much for the Mayor’s office having the Union’s backs. They never should have endorsed him.

March 13, 2009 | 1:05 PM

More resources? How about a new cuisinart, some knives, new china, frsh linens…Give me a break! Firefighters do provide a “critical” service but they are overpaid. If you are hangin’ out in the firehouse cooking and playing cards, why should you be compensated THE WHOLE TIME!

June 8, 2009 | 3:21 PM

Hey gssempire,

The life expectancy after a firefighter retires is 5 years on average due to the fact that they work in a high stress environment and often go 48 hours without sleep. This is horrible for your body over the lifetime of their careers. They may not have had to to go to college for years and years at a time but they risk they’re lives and definately shorten their lifespan. Don’t you think that deserves compensation? Not to mention, they pass an academy that demands a competency and performance not many can demonstrate. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are one of these individuals. Try not to be an idiot!

July 21, 2009 | 9:11 PM

Well when one of these people that do not support are Firefighters/Paramedics/Hazardeous material specialist along with a variety of other titles a firefighter carries (who run more medical calls then fires) is in a car crash, house is on fire, or is injured and it takes to long to arrive on scene because they are UNDER STAFFED and are busy running other calls maybe, hopefully there outlook would change on not the need to hire more firefighters but to not eliminate positions in public care……

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