There have been a lot of discussions about East County fire protection in the last few years. Four years ago there was a merger of the three fire districts with hope this would improve fire protection in East Contra Costa County, and it has improved. Out of the eight fire stations in East Contra Costa County Fire, seven are now staffed full-time with paid professional firefighters. Only Knightsen remains as a Paid On Call (part time staffing) station; however, calls in Knightsen are still backed up with one of the full-time fire engines from Brentwood or Oakley. Don't get me wrong, though; there is still much more to do.
Out of the seven full-time stations, only two of them are staffed 24 hours with the industry standard of three firefighters. This standard is used for both firefighter safety and operational functionality at emergency incidents. There are licensed paramedics currently working within the fire district, but the district does not use any of these individuals to provide advanced life support to the citizens of East Contra Costa County. Your neighbors in Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, Moraga-Orinda Fire Protection District, Pinole City Fire Department, El Cerrito City Fire Department, and Rodeo-Hercules Fire Protection District are all providing the minimum staffing standard of three-person engine companies, and all are either currently or soon will be providing paramedics on all engine companies.
What is the problem in East Contra Costa County? We've been told that the problem is "property tax distribution" due to Proposition 13. There is an average of five to seven and a half cents of every property tax dollar going to Fire Protection in East County, while the average in the rest of the County is from 12 to 18 cents per dollar. What this means is that the same amount of property tax dollars are collected throughout the county, but the portion distributed to your Fire Protection budget is significantly less than the rest of the county.
What effect does this property tax distribution create? The firefighters in East Contra Costa County are paid an average of 50 percent less than the firefighters in the rest of the county. In fact, a fire captain in East Contra Costa County Fire makes less than an entry-level firefighter anywhere else in Contra Costa County! This creates the inability to retain qualified, experienced, well-trained personnel. Young new firefighters often come here and work a year or two to gain experience and then go on to other fire departments. Most of the firefighters that stay have been here for a while and have ties to the community, though they still have to work second jobs or extra shifts just to make a wage that enables them to afford to live within the community they serve.
Local 1230 and the East Contra Costa County Firefighters are currently in contract negotiations with the fire district and Contra Costa County, looking to improve your firefighters' working conditions, and at the same time find solutions to some of the other issues that the district faces. Your firefighters have been working without a contract since Jan. 1, 2006. Despite the rapid and obvious growth in East Contra Costa, the county still claims that there is no money to increase the pay to a fair and livable level. Since the merger in 2002, there has been no change to the level of service or number of personnel, yet there is no additional money for the firefighter's salaries, or to address some of the other pressing issues? We understand that the average property tax distributed to fire protection is lower in East County but there are a lot more tax dollars generated due to the rapid growth.
A study done by an independent company that evaluates emergency services recommends a total of 10 fire stations, with three firefighters (including one paramedic) on each engine company 24 hours a day. Proposals were put together that included estimates for the cost of a merger with Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, the California Department of Forestry, and a reorganization of the current department that would increase the district to the recommended level outlined in the report. Mistakenly, the preliminary estimates were distributed to the public. The problem is that the three preliminary estimates did not compare the same level of fire protection and all associated costs. The levels of service and staffing needs were not the same. Because the preliminary bid from the California Department of Forestry came out significantly less than the other two proposals, it seemed to have caused an interest in contracting out our jobs to the state. While in contract negotiations we have been placed in a position of being forced to accept an unfair contract, or have our jobs contracted out.
The contracting out of our jobs is unacceptable! Please understand, the men and women of East Contra Costa Fire have worked for less with fewer resources for many years, and have maintained their commitment to the citizens, the community and to the fire district with unwavering loyalty. Now to return the commitment, the county is looking into the contracting out of their jobs. The firefighters have been told they can go to work for the new employer, but they have no interest in doing that. They work for the East Contra Costa County Fire District, serving the citizens of East County, and that is where they want to stay! The employees are one of the groups most impacted by these proposed changes, and as their representative, we have been left out of the loop on many of the meetings regarding this matter. Contracting out our jobs to the state means a complete involuntary change in work schedule and working conditions, and we think that they are owed much more than that.
Recently, the Discovery Bay Community Service Board voted to recommend the California Department of Forestry at the next meeting of the Master Plan Work Group (this group helps decide fire protection levels for the East Contra Costa Fire District). Any vote at this point is premature. The final proposals have not yet been analyzed to make sure they are consistent and accurate to what is best for East County residents and the East County firefighters. Once this has been done, the reports will be released. Until then, any actions, one way or another, are based on misinformation and speculation.
We, your firefighters of East Contra Costa County, ask that before you make any decisions or come to any conclusions on who should provide your fire protection, that you please wait to hear all the facts, and we ask that you demand the facts from all your community leaders. The county may have cut corners on your fire protection here in East County, but we have not. You always get our 110 percent, even if we aren't getting the support that we need from our community leaders.
Thank you for your support.
Firefighters, Local 1230