What most people expect from their fire service is, “If I call 911, somebody will come.” At the moment, it’s true. The “somebodies” are highly qualified, excellently trained, superbly equipped people who wear CalFire patches, and we’re proud to have them.
We all remember a time on the Coastside when we weren’t proud of our fire service. Before CalFire, we had a dysfunctional stand-alone department, rife with staff and management conflicts, grievances, lawsuits and dismal morale. The extremely high turnover rate meant firehouses were chronically understaffed, so manning the stations cost more than $1 million a year in overtime pay. Defending and settling firefighter lawsuits cost another million. Critical functions like equipment maintenance and disaster preparedness were overlooked. Grand jury reports and former chiefs condemned the department.
Finally, the new Coastside Fire Protection District was formed, and the directors closed the old department and contracted with CalFire to provide fire protection and emergency medical services. It was a brilliant decision. CalFire provided full staffing, upgraded training, used spectacular new equipment and professional management. The lawsuits and scandals stopped, and fire services returned to the level our community wants and deserves.
CalFire has meant huge cost savings as well. We don’t pay for overtime or most of the training costs now, and replacement firefighters are always available. We don’t need expensive human resources staff. All told, our CalFire contract is saving us millions, and we have peace of mind. Community-wide satisfaction with CalFire is nearly unanimous. So what’s not to like?
Well, three CFPD board members don’t like it at all. In 2007, local businessman Douglas Mackintosh sued to block CalFire and lost. Now that same Douglas Mackintosh is the board president, and he and allies Gary Riddell and Mike Alifano are committed to something almost no one on the Coastside wants — getting rid of CalFire and bringing back the old, far more expensive stand-alone department. They have already declined to renew the CalFire contract, and we will lose CalFire next year.
Mackintosh, Riddell and Alifano can’t or won’t explain their reasons for disliking CalFire. Despite repeated questioning from the public and their own colleagues on the board, they refuse to document CalFire’s alleged failures in writing or specify them verbally. Despite the lack of any objective data to support them, and despite a scathing recent grand jury report that strongly told them to stop, they are moving ahead with consultants costing $575 an hour to revive a stand-alone department that will cost us millions more for the same services CalFire provides. (They’re paying the consultants with the money CalFire saved.)
This so-called “due diligence” is actually a “done deal.” Mackintosh, Riddell and Alifano are already discussing employment structure and policies for a stand-alone department. The fact that there’s no documented reason to change is irrelevant. The fact that the public is overwhelmingly pleased with CalFire is irrelevant. The fact that taxpayers are saving nearly $2 million per year on our CalFire contract is irrelevant. They don’t care what we want. They win all the 3-2 votes and charge ahead.
Stopping them may require removing one or more of them from office, and a recall campaign is already developing. A recall is a last resort when elected officials blatantly ignore their constituents and pursue their own private agenda. But that may not be enough to stop their actions to sabotage CalFire now; the public needs to raise our voices at meetings, in the Review and on Internet news media. There’s no time to waste!
Come to the next regular fire board meeting on June 27 at the Main Street fire station. Fill out a speaker’s form, step up and demand the answers to three basic questions that these directors have ignored so far:
• How does ending the CalFire contract make the Coastside safer?
• How will a more costly stand-alone department serve the Coastside better than CalFire?
• How will you prevent the “new” department from becoming the same kind of cesspool as the old one?
When Mackintosh, Riddell and Alifano won’t answer these questions and their personal agenda is fully exposed to an angry electorate, perhaps they will cease and desist this foolhardy, reckless course of action. For our safety and financial health, let’s try.
Peggy Emrey is a Montara resident and retired nurse. She is a member of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office Communications Unit Auxiliary.