San Carlos Fire Department at Risk

Fire Chief Jim Skinner gives city council a gloomy forecast on the state of the San Carlos Fire Department.

The San Carlos Fire Department has reached a critical stage. There are not enough employees to maintain even a minimal staff at both fire stations in town, forcing Fire Chief Jim Skinner and Deputy Fire Chief Stan Maupin to create a brown out at station 16 (on the Alameda) last week.

It could happen again soon if no solution can be found quickly.

The current 17 fire personnel have been pushed to the brink of danger because of overtime. Fire captains have been asked to serve as drivers.

"I wish I was here to give you better news but, actually, we're at a tipping point in staffing and managing the department the way it is now," Skinner told the San Carlos city council at its last meeting.

Skinner told the city council that a minimum of 24 fire personnel are required to run both stations. Of those 24, six are captains, 12 are firefighters/paramedics and six are fire personnel.

San Carlos currently has five captains, six firefighters/paramedics and six fire personnel.

"The reason we had the brown out last week was because we didn't have enough drivers," Skinner said. "It was a difficult decision to make."

San Carlos has received four resignations since last October's termination of the South County Fire Department, a coalition between San Carlos and Belmont. Two of them took jobs in Oakland, one returned to Belmont and one resigned out of the Fire Academy.

"We have to fill six spots," Skinner said. "Current employees are working way too many hours. We cannot sustain it. The personnel we have now are doing their best to make it work."

The brown outs occured on June 30 and July 4-6.

"It couldn't happen at a worst time of the year obviously," Skinner said. "We were lucky nothing catastrophic happened. As we brown out station 16 it affects other stations nearby because that company is used to cover other areas of the district if there is other events going on."

One solution offered was to have San Carlos city manager Jeff Maltbie open discussions with the Redwood City city manager to see what a full service contract would look like.

"This is an item that is of critical importance to city management," Maltbie said.

The simple solution is to hire more personnel, which is currently in the works. The best case scenario has all the positions filled by February.

Should the brown outs continue, response time would increase but Skinner could not provide an accurate level because of lack of data.

"If we could come to some agreement between San Carlos and Redwood City where we could share employees more than just one position at a time in an overtime capacity, but on a day to day basis to fill these roles then we could get through the next few months while we're crafting a new contract," Skinner said. "We could help each other but there's no mechanism to do that right now."


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Steve Hayes July 12, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Seems like a long-term problem. As long as there is a significant gap between the pay/benefits rates in SC versus the other Peninsula communities there will always be high turnover and inadequate staffing. SC will train new people and as soon as they are trained the new people will begin looking at opportunites elsewhere - high training costs and high turnover. More important there will be more medical related deaths in SC due to lapses in response time.
Cy Young award July 12, 2012 at 08:11 PM
I would fill-in for the minimum pay just to ensure that my neighbors and their property were safe. I've lived in station 16's first due area in the White Oaks neighborhood since 1993. I'm spent my career as a firefighter and have operated engines, both ends of a ladder truck, rescue squads, and chief's buggies at greater alarms and the '89 earthquake. I retired an officer and have served as incident commander at meny incidents. No more brown outs, I can still drive the engine.
Cy Young award July 12, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Patch needs spell-check please.
Bill Bohlen July 12, 2012 at 09:45 PM
As a resident of Belmont, I think it is the fault of all the cities that continue to give outrageous benefits away. We will one day have to come down to San Carlos' pay scale, the sooner the better.
Rick Eymer July 12, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Yep, I need to be more careful . . .
Rick Eymer July 12, 2012 at 11:27 PM
There's a possibility of a full merger with the Redwood City fire department. The cities are currently in very early talks.
Rick Eymer July 12, 2012 at 11:31 PM
Cy, I'm willing to promote you to associate head fire chief right now. Wish I had the authority. You have a great attitude. As an aside, what are the chances Matt Cain gets your award this year?
Cy Young award July 13, 2012 at 04:01 AM
In the past when our dept. had brown outs, an offical notice was posted in the newspaper and a sign posted at the firehouse. Is this occuring here in S.C.? Our FF's union forced the City to do the posting so as not to hide the brown out from the residents and taxpayers. With RWC Engine 9 out of service and Belmont's Engine 14 serving a dual role of a truck company, there is a serious safety issue. Matt Cain's chances = better than 80%. How's that?
Rick Eymer July 13, 2012 at 05:24 AM
I will inquire about future brown outs. Thanks for the suggestion and thanks for the chances on Cain.
40 year SC resident July 15, 2012 at 10:01 PM
Why not just outsource the fire department to CalFire? Better coverage and lower costs. Win-win for the City and its residents, but a loss for the SC fire union.
Angela July 17, 2012 at 05:15 AM
Can we have volunteers? I think there are many people out of work who would be willing to volunteer. With San Carlos being one of the lowest paid why cant we give them a raise? The Alameda station is closer to the areas that have more trees and would seem more at risk of a bad fire. With the property taxes in the area being the same I dont understand how we can not solve the problem.
Stretch July 24, 2012 at 08:04 PM
The coverage would in no way be better. At best it would be the same. Cal Fire operates differently than the local municipal departments. Personnel would probably not have the same knowledge of the local area that current employees do since a lot of them would find work elsewhere at higher paying departments. The cost would be lower but the service would not be the same.
Cy Young award July 24, 2012 at 10:46 PM
CalFire is always an option but, let's not forget that they are primarily a wildland based operation who, because of the California Mutual Aid Agreement, is bound to respond into areas where structures are involved. Cities must have their own depts and not just because of tradition but, for knowing their communities. Emergency responders are not just an insurance tool they are part of a community. They know the streets, hazards, buildings, and people. Volunteers in a city as progressive as San Carlos is out of the question. If that happens, what incentive would a volunteer have to risk and give up their life? At some point they'll question that scenario. If the fire dept goes volunteer then why not plice and ER workers? Why not the entire 911 system? Won't work here.


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