Fire Chief Brian Helmick of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) received approval from the district’s fire board last week to investigate consolidation options.
Helmick can spend up to $10,000 to study the implications of merging ECCFPD with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire).
“We say we’re kicking over every rock, and this rock is pretty stale,” Helmick explained. “This is one thing that hasn’t been looked into by this administration at all. I want to make sure that the information we’re bringing back to the board is accurate, updated and relevant.”
Helmick went on to say that while consolidation has been discussed and dismissed as a solution to the district’s persistent fiscal issues, a definitive study on the topic was never completed. ConFire is expected to share the cost of the study.
“We felt it was time to at least look into this and find out if there was any merit to the consolidation concept,” ConFire Fire Chief Lewis Broschard said. “Chief Helmick and I both feel the same. It’s our obligation to continue to look and see if there’s a chance to increase efficiencies through this concept, to increase resources in East Contra Costa Fire and the communities that they service, which has a benefit to Contra Costa Fire.”
ECCFPD provides fire and rescue services for about 160,000 residents spread over 250 square miles. Currently, the district operates three stations located in Brentwood, Oakley and Discovery Bay. The district’s strategic plan, released in early 2018, identified an existing need for six stations to provide a level of fire service in line with standards published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Incident response times in the district regularly exceed national standards.
ConFire routinely supplements ECCFPD resources through an automatic aid agreement, but an imbalance between the two agencies exists as ConFire sends two, three or four times the number of resources into the district as it receives from the ECCFPD in any given month. In June, Helmick called that imbalance unsustainable over the long term, and efforts to create parity between the agencies have met with only modest success. In the most recent attempt to reduce reliance on ConFire, Helmick announced that, unless lives are at risk, firefighters will not enter a burning structure. At the same time, the district reduced the number of engines dispatched to a structure fire from the industry standard of five to three unless lives or additional properties are at risk.
Consolidation of the two agencies has been discussed as a way to improve service levels to the residents of East County. Doing so would shift the liability of the three-station deficit from ECCFPD to the county as the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors oversees ConFire. The question of whether or not efficiencies gained by consolidation would offset the cost of improving fire service has not been definitively answered. But that calculation is complicated by several factors including a substantial pay differential between the two agencies.
“The pay differential between the two districts is 30%,” Director Joe Young of the ECCFPD Fire Board said. “The idea that combining (ConFire and ECCFPD) and it will work just doesn’t make sense in my mind. You’re talking about 75 - 80% of the cost of running the district is labor and you’re going to combine it with a district that has a 30% higher labor cost, and it’s going to cost less? I don’t think so ... Sometime after we solve our (financial) problem and have a funding stream that will support it, consolidation might be something to consider. There would be some efficiencies. I wouldn’t argue that for a minute. But I don’t think there are enough efficiencies to add three stations.”
The discrepancy in pay between the two neighboring agencies has not escaped the notice of the firefighters union. Vince Wells, president of Local 1230 that represents Contra Costa County firefighters, has advocated for consolidation as a means of eliminating the pay gap for firefighters who often work side by side on the same incident.
“Yes, we looked at consolidation years ago,” said Brian Oftedal, ECCFPD fire board president. “The prior appointed fire board looked at it and there was an opportunity for other districts to send in a letter of interest if they would be willing to consider doing some type of consolidation. But it never played out. Everyone looked at us as a liability as opposed to an asset. There was no added benefit to joining together.”
As the district has made efforts over the last several years to solidify its financial footing, Oftedal said he believes it might be on the path to becoming a more viable partner for consolidation. But he cautioned that much work remains to be done before ECCFPD can be considered an asset for a partner agency.
“Having a mutual shared approach, Contra Costa County Fire along with East Contra Costa Fire both investing equally into doing a study that both of the boards and fire chiefs can hold on to and point people back to when they ask these questions, I felt to be of tremendous value going into us exploring what our next steps are as an agency,” Helmick concluded.