Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fire board considers (San Mateo) grand jury report

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2012 10:49 am
by Mark Noack

Like night and day, board members for the Coastside Fire Protection District offer starkly different interpretations of a damning San Mateo County civil grand jury report released last month.

At a special meeting this evening, Coastside fire board directors will discuss how to respond to the report and its conclusions admonishing the district to end consideration of dumping CalFire. The state fire agency has managed local fire services since a contract was adopted in 2008.

The question of whether CalFire has saved money and improved service levels goes to the heart of a long-simmering and often bitter debate within the district leadership. A three-man board majority began pushing in December to investigate how to return the district to a stand-alone department.

Board member Gary Riddell is adamant that service levels have deteriorated while costs have risen under CalFire. He dismisses the grand jury report, which reached the opposite conclusion, saying it wasn’t put together by firefighting professionals and didn’t include data he delivered to them. The only thing the report got right was “the page numbers,” he said.

“The reality is we got ripped off, ripped off for years,” he said. “This report is more muddying the water than it is truth, and no one knows right now what the truth is.”

The grand jury report largely praised CalFire for meeting and exceeding response time, staff training and productivity while lowering costs. The report chastised the fire board for making accusations against CalFire that were “unfounded, outdated or of relatively minor significance.”

Another skeptic of CalFire, board president Doug Mackintosh, also disagreed with the conclusions of the report, but said he respected its intent. He agreed that CalFire generated cost savings for the district, but he said other factors should be considered.

“There are things under the surface that are not necessarily aired that are important for the decisions,” he said. “The concept we have to work with is what’s best for the coast and what’s best for the people who live here.”

Board members Gary Burke and Ginny McShane voted against hiring a consultant team. At the last board meeting, the pair tried to delay hiring consultants charged with considering a stand-alone department until the board had time to consider the grand jury report. Both are on record supporting CalFire as the least expensive, most appropriate management choice for the coast.

The board’s consultants are expected to report back on operational and cost issues as early as later this month. CalFire exercised an option in the contract that guarantees service through June of 2013, but officials are planning for a possible pullout from Coastside stations after that.

The district turned to Calfire about five years ago after a series of lawsuits and defections left low morale and other problems at Coastside stations.

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