The last fiscal year, Downey paid $17.2 million to fully staff its department of four fire engines, one fire truck and two paramedics.
The Downey Firemens Association at Tuesday’s City Council meeting requested that the city commission a feasibility study to consider disbanding the Downey Fire Department and instead contracting fire service to the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Union President Steve Davis said the move could save the city money and possibly increase service. The county would pay for the research and report, he said.
Councilman Mario Guerra said he wouldn’t support a feasibility study.
If the city were to switch to county services, the city would lose its public ambulance service, lose control over fire operations and have to give its fire stations and fire equipment to the county, Guerra said.
He also said the such a switch — by the city’s own laws — would require a 2-1vote of Downey residents. Even union officials concede that such a vote would be nearly impossible.
Councilman Luis Marquez at Tuesday’s meeting said collecting information couldn’t do any harm. And Mayor Roger Brossmer told The Downey Patriot that the data could be useful.
Using figures from a 2010 feasibility study in El Segundo, Downey would annually pay about $16.65 million to be fully staffed with four fire engines, a fire truck and two paramedic crews. Voters in El Segundo this year overwhelmingly opted to keep the city’s fire department.
That’s $550,000 per year less than the $17.2 million Downey spent last fiscal year. The costs likely have increased slightly due to the passage of time.
On the other hand, El Monte, which has nearly the same-sized population as Downey, pays only about $10.8 million for fire service.
But the San Gabriel Valley city has less personnel on duty than Downey.
If El Monte were staffed the same as Downey, it would likely cost that city about $14 million a year based on figures from El Monte’s contract and from El Segundo’s feasibility study.
La Habra pays the county $6.8 million annually for four engines and one paramedic unit. It doesn’t have a truck. All its engines are staffed with cross-trained paramedic/firefighters. It also uses two private ambulances. La Habra is in Orange County, but it uses L.A. County firefighters.
Davis said it’s not as easy as applying a study or contract in one city to other cities.
Each community has its own set of challenges, and costs may be less in different regions, he said.
With the exception of Santa Fe Springs, every other community surrounding Downey contracts with the county for firefighters and paramedics.
The county has 16 stations within 5 miles of Downey, Davis said.
And while Downey belongs to the Area E emergency services cooperative with nearby Santa Fe Springs, Vernon, Downey and Compton, those agencies have a combined 5 stations within 5 miles of Downey, Davis said.
In many cases county firefighters in Pico Rivera or Bellflower are able to respond to fires faster than Downey city crews, Davis said.
“There is a station in Pico Rivera that will beat us to the homes above Telegraph Road,” Davis said. “Their station is so much closer. That’s why the response times get better with county. The borders get eliminated.”
Instead of emergency calls being relayed from Downey’s dispatch system to the county, calls would go directly to the county, Davis said. He also said the city has too many chiefs compared to the number of rank-and-file firefighters and paramedics. And the move would eliminate overtime related to sick leave or vacations, Davis said.
A feasibility study for Downey would clear up any guess work about the cost and service implications of going with county services, according to union officials.
Davis said the switch would give the city access to world-class service, such as the county’s Urban Search and Rescue team, which is one of just a few teams in the county that respond to incidents all over the world. One of the county’s USAR teams is stationed in nearby Pico Rivera.
Guerra said the county already helps out in Downey all the time and that Downey’s firefighters daily foray to fight fires in other cities.
“I don’t see how this adds service,” he said.
He also said that about 90 percent of Downey’s fire department budget went toward personnel costs, so he didn’t see how switching to the county would save money.
He also noted that Downey had a well-respected fire department. About 1,400 people recently applied for two open Downey Fire Department positions, he said.
Meanwhile, resident Sheila Pautsch has accused the city of breaking its own laws by sub-contracting out basic life-support services to an outside contractor. Basic life-support workers assist people whose injuries or sicknesses are not life-threatening.
The city’s charter states that emergency service are to be provided by the city.
The debate comes after Downey on July 1 took a fire engine at Station 1 on Paramount Boulevard out of service. The move leaves the southwestern part of the city without a engine to squirt water at fires.
If nearby cities are any indication, the city v. county discussion will continue for months. Cash-strapped cities across the region are considering using the county for firefighting services. But a few cities, such as West Covina, Downey and Montebello, have held on to the fire departments while their neighboring communities are served by the county.
Fire departments are expensive. A truck costs close to $1 million. The average firefighter in Downey earns about $105,000 annually, according to figures from the city. Their pay is about on par with the county and other departments. Downey pays another $50,000 a year in benefits for each firefighter.
In all, the fire department takes up about a quarter of Downey’s $65 million general fund budget. The police department takes up about half and the rest of the city is funded by the remaining portion.