(An edited version of this column was originally published in the Alameda Sun March 27, 2014).
Every child probably would like to have a rich uncle who can be counted on regularly to put the latest gadget under the Christmas tree.
But even Bill Gates’s nieces and nephews might envy the members of the Alameda firefighters’ union, whose letters to Santa have found a receptive audience – one might even say a captive audience — at City Hall.
The most recent package presented to the firefighters by their friends on City Council is a new $5 million fire station to be built on the corner of Hibbard and Buena Vista next to the new $3 million Emergency Operations Center. Having previously authorized bond financing for the new EOC, City Council last Tuesday approved a “financing plan” for the new fire station. Site preparation work is expected to begin this fall.
Those with long memories – or at least memories going back two years – may recall that the administration headed by City Manager John Russo and Mayor Marie Gilmore tried in 2012 to get the voters to raise sales tax rates to pay for the new fire station and EOC. The voters turned them down, so they had to resort to other means to accomplish their goal.
The endeavor has turned out to be expensive. Two years ago, the Russo/Gilmore administration told the public that the new fire station and EOC together would cost $4.5 million. Now, the aggregate cost of construction is up to $8 million. And that doesn’t include debt service: since the City is borrowing money for pay for both the fire station and the EOC, the total cost actually is more like $8.07 million (by staff’s own estimates) for the fire station and $4.06 million (by ours) for the EOC.
The new fire station may be the latest package the firefighters found under the tree, but it’s hardly the first. Since IAFF Local 689’s Political Action Committee spent around $40,000 to elect Mayor Gilmore, Councilwoman Lena Tam, and Councilman Rob Bonta in November 2010, the politicians have sent a steady flow of brand-new gear the firefighters way.
By now, the public surely has heard about the new $500,000 fire boat equipped with a pump that can spray up to 2,000 gallons of water a minute. (“It’s almost like a floating hydrant,” acting Deputy Fire Chief Doug Long was quoted as saying). A few weeks ago, the craft was christened the “Deanna Jo” at a ceremony attended by IAFF Local 689 president Dom Weaver and other local dignitaries.
But the Deanna Jo isn’t the most expensive addition to the arsenal acquired under the auspices of the Russo/Gilmore administration. Since September 2011, Council has voted to approve buying – on credit — two new ladder trucks, two new fire engines, and one new and one refurbished ambulance. All told, the cost in principal and interest is around $6.5 million.
During the same period, Council has OK’d cash purchases of a new “rescue vehicle,” three new pickup trucks, four new “interceptor utility vehicles,” and a new “fire chief command vehicle” for former IAFF Local 689 president and current fire chief Mike D’Orazi. Including the $36,000 for the Chiefmobile, these purchases total more than $750,000.
The politicians’ largesse has extended beyond marine and automotive items. For example, in April 2012 Council approved spending $325,362 on “wildlands firefighting personal protective equipment” (if there are farms in Berkeley there must be wildlands in Alameda). Likewise, in May 2013 Council OK’d spending $201,709 on electronic and exercise equipment for use in EMS training and the “wellness fitness program.”
And, oh, did we mention the $672,772 for 127 handheld and vehicle portable radios purchased with borrowed money?
We should point out that, for some, but not all, of these items, the City was able to obtain grants from the federal government to cover 80% of the tab. But we assume the politicians took off the labels before they wrapped up the packages.
And let’s not forget the stocking stuffers: actual cash to the firefighters in the form of wages and retirement benefits.
Just before two firefighters’ union-endorsed candidates joined Mayor Gilmore and Councilwoman Tam on the dais in December 2012, Council approved public safety contracts providing for annual pay raises of up to 4% in 2014, 5% in 2015, and 5% in 2016. Even if only the minimum raises are paid, the higher salaries and associated benefits will cost at least $1.7 million, and probably more as a result of subsequent hikes in CalPERS contribution rates.
At the same time, Council authorized creating a “disaster preparedness fire captain” position – somebody’s got to work in the new EOC — costing $1 million over the life of the contracts and bringing the total number of captains to 21 in a department with 98 sworn personnel.
Then, in April 2013, Council approved allowing Alameda firefighters who previously had worked at the Naval Air Station – including IAFF Local 689 president Weaver – to purchase “air time” credits that would increase their pensions. Staff estimated that 15-20 firefighters would take advantage of this opportunity – but it said the cost to the City was “unknown.”
No, Bill Gates has nothing on our City Council when it comes to beneficence toward the favored few. There’s one difference: Bill can afford it. He doesn’t owe around $200 million for the benefits he’s promised his family members in the future. That is the amount of the City’s unfunded liability for pensions and retiree health care benefits for public employees. But ssh! Let’s not spoil the celebration.
EOC & fire station no. 3: Yes on C argument; 2013-09-17 staff report re refinancing COPs; Final official statement for 2013 COPs; 2014-03-18 staff report re financing FS 3; 2014-01-27 Ex. 4 to staff report to PB – Initial Study for FS3& EOC
Equipment: 2011-02-15 staff report re new rescue vehicle; 2011-09-20 staff report re equipment purchases; 2012-04-17 staff report re wildland firefighting grant; 2012-07-17 staff report re equipment purchases; 2012-09-04 staff report re ambulance purchase; 2012-10-02 staff report re fire boat; 2013-10-15 staff report re equipment purchase
Salaries & benefits: 2012-12-11 staff memo re IAFF MOU; 2013-17 MOU; 2013-04-02 staff memo re air time
The police received an armored car a year or so ago. Do you know how many times they have used it or what the annual maintenance costs are?
I don’t know.
I’ll email the police chief and post his response.
Police Chief Paul Rolleri responded to my inquiry in less than 24 hours. Here is what he said:
According to our records, the armored vehicle was used by our SWAT Team for three deployments since we took delivery of it in April, 2013. Two of the deployments were for our team, and we assisted the San Leandro Police Department with it on one other occasion. The team trains with the vehicle during their monthly training days, so I estimate it was used for another 12-15 training days.
The armored vehicle was purchased through the Equipment Replacement Fund, as we were replacing the old armored vehicle which was no longer serviceable. The old vehicle was a 1987 GMC, which we bought as a used in 1998. We frequently had to perform maintenance on the old vehicle, and still made it last for 15 years. I’m confident the new vehicle will last for many years.
There has not been any maintenance costs to date since the vehicle is new and still under warranty. It was built on a standard Ford pickup truck chassis, so routine maintenance shouldn’t be any different than most other vehicles in the fleet.
Under what type of circumstances do we deploy a SWAT team with an armored vehicle? I don’t recall two such high profile incidents in the past year, but I may have missed something. Were shots fired? Was this some sort of barricade situation?
The stocking stuffing committee [EPAC] met today :http://alamedaca.gov/fire/emergency-preparedness-advisory-council-epac
On the City website, the EPAC is described as one of those decision making bodies comprised of already-selected-but-unelected community stakeholders, none of whom are named. This is how so much gets done without authentic citizen input.
WHO THE HELL ARE THESE PEOPLE? NAME THEM PLEASE!
In response to my inquiry, Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen identified the members of the “Emergency Preparedness Council” as follows:
• Alameda Municipal Power, representative varies
• Alameda Police Department, Paul Rolleri, Police Chief
• Alameda Fire Department, Michael D’Orazi, Fire Chief and Michael DeGrano, Fire Captain Assistant Fire Marshal for Disaster Preparedness
• Alameda Public Works, Robert Haun, Public Works Director
• Alameda Economic Development, Jim Franz, (Former Alameda Red Cross Director)
• Amateur Radio Emergency Services, Tom Schwich
• Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), Jerry Juhala
• Assistant City Manager Alexander Nguyen
The Emergency Preparedness Advisory Committee (EPAC) has nothing to do with City decisions on spending funds or anything else related to the meat of this article above regarding Stocking Stuffing. The primary purpose of this committee is to assist the Fire Chief and the Disaster Preparedness Officer with ways to mitigate, prepare for and respond to disasters that might affect our community. You will notice the committee consists of Department Heads of City offices that would be responsible for citizen safety and response after a disaster. Also included are some Volunteer leaders from various Community Based Organizations (CBO’s) that also work with the city offices to train for and respond in case of disaster.
Notice that the American Red Cross is represented along with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) agents.
ARES is a program of the American Radio Relay League and provides training and assistance to local personnel to be able to help local government and communities to respond to communication outages in their area. After all major disasters, one of the key infrastructures to be hit is communications. In this day and age we rely heavily on the power grid, cell phone towers, the internet and phone service to keep all of us connected. When any of those services goes down, the one thing that still works is Ham Radio. Ham Radio operators are licensed by the FCC and one of their primary tasks is to provide assistance in times of disaster. Some of these disasters are very visible, like a hurricane, earthquake, or explosion. Other disasters cannot be readily seen but affect communication just as much. Think back to when a major ATT Fiber Optic Cable was cut in January 2009, cutting off landline and 911 phone service to almost two counties. More recently in Ohio they had a problem where six counties were without 911 service. When these disasters occur, volunteer ham radio operators step up to assist their local neighbors and cities to provide that vital communication link between key infrastructure points, hospitals, Fire and Police Dispatch centers, City Hall, Fire Stations and the community. By Federal Law, these volunteers cannot be paid for this service. They buy their own equipment and train on their own time so they are ready to assist should the need ever arise.
CERT is a FEMA based program that provides basic disaster response training to volunteers in the local community. Local Fire Departments provide this training to residents so that they are better prepared to take care of themselves and if they choose to assist their neighbors and community at large. The Basic course consists of 5 classes and an exercise. Alameda currently has over 1200 people that have taken at least some of these courses, over 700 have completed all the classes and graduated.
After graduation, members can choose to take continuing education courses provided by graduates in the program. In this way they can enhance what they know and keep their skills sharp. CERT graduates also help the city with special public service events throughout the year, including the July 4th parade, and Park Street Art and Wine Fair.
CERT volunteers have assisted the Alameda Police Department with Search and Rescue activities eight times in the last 4 years looking for residents that have been lost in town and are particularly vulnerable; the elderly, young, have some mental or physical disability, etc. Doing these activities helps CERT volunteers use the same skills they would need to use during a disaster situation. Alameda CERT has almost 200 volunteers that have agreed to be called upon 24 hours a day to assist the city as needed. This includes Search and Rescue, large scale evacuations of specific neighborhoods or schools, assist the Hospital with Points of Distribution (PODS), and many more. After the recent storm, we are working on a program to assist residents with filling and distributing sand bags so City Public Works employees can be freed up to do what they need to do.
The CERT concept was first developed and implemented by the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) in 1985 after devastating earthquakes in Japan, Mexico, and California. The goal was to develop multi-functional volunteer response teams with the ability to perform basic fire suppression, light search and rescue and first aid that would improve the ability of citizens to survive until responders or other assistance could arrive. Several major earthquakes and fires in California have confirmed the need for training civilians to meet immediate emergency needs.
In 1994 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) felt that the concept and the program should be made available to communities nationwide. FEMA in cooperation with the LAFD expanded CERT training to be applicable to a wide range of natural hazards.
As far as CERT, ARES and the Red Cross, they are all volunteers, no one gets paid and they do not make any decisions regarding pensions, building projects, or political choices. Our goal is to help make sure the city and its citizens are ready to respond and recover in case of disaster.
For more information about CERT and ARES in Alameda you can check out their website at http://www.AlamedaCERT.us or the city site at http://alamedaca.gov/emergency-info/cert.
My name is Jerry Juhala, I am the local ARES Leader and a member of the CERT Executive Committee that helps make policy and training decisions for the CERT volunteers in town.