DOWNEY – The City Council on Tuesday voted 3-2 to ask the county to study the feasibility of disbanding the fire department and switching fire service to the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Mayor Roger Brossmer said he was nervous that surrounding fire departments in the Area E cooperative were struggling to stay solvent. Vernon recently commissioned a feasibility study to switch to county fire service, and Compton is flirting with bankruptcy. Both cities are part of Area E, a group composed of fire departments from Downey, Santa Fe Springs, Montebello, Vernon, Compton and La Habra Heights that help one another respond to calls for service.
“I can’t count on our Area E to be there for us,” Brossmer said. “Unfortunately, no matter how great our fire department is, we’re still only as good as our neighbors.”
He voted in favor or requesting the study, and he was joined by Councilmen Luis Marquez and Fernando Vasquez.
Councilmen Mario Guerra and David Gafin voted against the study.
“You don’t request a survey unless you plan on disbanding the fire department,” Gafin said.
He called a recent decision to take a fire engine out of service a temporary fix for an extraordinarily tough budget year. If the economy improves, the city would put the engine back in service, he said.
“This is a short term issue,” Gafin said. “I know this is just a request for a study, but it is my opinion that our citizens don’t want us to go down that road at all.”
The issue was put on the agenda by Councilman Luis Marquez. He said he wanted more data to make an informed decision.
If the study shows Downey won’t save money or get better service, the City Council can keep the city’s department, he said.
The decision to shut down the fire engine at Station 1 on Paramount Boulevard was part of the city’s plan to close an $11 million budget shortfall. The move cut the number of firefighters or paramedics on duty at any given time from 20 to 17, and it will likely save the city $1.8 million annually when the fire departments reaches the new staffing levels through attrition.
Gafin and Guerra both said a move toward county services went against a spirit of independence Downey’s forefathers established when the city incorporated in 1956.
“What we will lose is our 55-year tradition,” Gafin said.
Speaker Lourdes Cotaya said she would campaign against anyone who supported disbanding the fire department. She was proud to live in Downey because the city had it’s own identity, she said.
” We don’t live in the southeast. We don’t live Los Angeles. We live in Downey,” she said.
But Steve Davis, the president of the firemen’s union, said the recent mothballing of the fire engine put residents at risk.
Since the engine was taken out of service July 1, response times have increased from about 5 minutes to about 5 minutes, 13 seconds.That statistic doesn’t take into account times when the department gets multiple calls at once and doesn’t have the manpower to respond to all the calls at once, Davis said. The county would likely be able to provide more firefighters and paramedics, he said.
“To not request the feasibility study would be irresponsible,” Davis said.
The City Council chambers were packed with firefighters and their family members.
The union unanimously supported conducting a feasibility study, Davis said.
The City Council also considered taking some action regarding a Downey ordinance that required the city to have its own police and fire departments unless it received a two-thirds vote of the people to do otherwise. The issue was put on the agenda by Marquez. It wasn’t clear whether Marquez wanted to discuss a recent letter accusing the city of subcontracting out a few public-safety related services, such as workers for non life-threatening medical calls, or whether he wanted the law to be repealed. Davis said that firefighters wanted the law repealed.
The council took no action regarding the ordinance,saying they weren’t in any hurry to start asking voters to change laws.
The next step for the city is to send a request letter to the county to conduct the the feasibility study. The studies usually take about 9 or 10 months to complete.
Resident Sam Mathis said he didn’t trust the county to impartially analyze the issue since the county had something at stake in the outcome.
Members of the City Council agreed and said the city would likely form a local committee to go over the findings of the feasibility study.