Calif. city's plan to temporarily deactivate engines, shutter stations draws backlash
Oakland union representatives and officials from neighboring cities said the brownouts will have a "cascading effect" on local fire and EMS response
San Francisco Chronicle
OAKLAND, Calif. — Oakland will begin deactivating some of its fire engines and shuttering stations temporarily on Thursday in a budget-cutting move that drew criticism from firefighters and neighboring communities that contract with the city for fire protection.
The fire department will deactivate three engines for six days at a time over the next five months, effectively closing three of the city's 25 stations, each of which operate with one engine. The only station not affected is at Oakland International Airport. The move is expected to save $5 million.
Local officials and firefighters criticized the move and threatened to take legal action to prevent the closures. Some firefighters say their work now is more crucial than ever as they are often the first responders during the COVID pandemic.
"You have the domino effect that ends up emptying the city of fire engines because they're all covering for each other's calls," said Zac Unger, president of Oakland Firefighters Local 55.
"Not only do we respond to fires, but we respond to all COVID emergency calls in the city. If anybody is having difficulty breathing, they call us and we respond. I don't know of any other city that is reducing emergency response capability at the height of the pandemic," Unger added.
Last month, the city's finance department said Oakland is facing an "unprecedented fiscal challenge." The city ended its 2019-20 fiscal year in June with a $30 million budget gap. Now that's grown to $62 million.
The overspending came primarily from the Oakland Police Department exceeding its budget by $32 million over the past fiscal year, wrote Margaret O'Brien, the interim finance director, in a report presented to City Council last month.
In December, city administrators said they would cut $29 million to address the financial crisis — $9 million in general spending through a hiring freeze, $20 million from the police department and $5 million from the fire department.
The closures have also sparked criticism from county officials and neighboring cities.
In a letter to Mayor Libby Schaaf, Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley said closing the fire stations will disproportionately affect Black and brown communities who use the Fire Department as "their medical provider of both first and last resort."
Miley asked Schaaf to reconsider the closures and provide an opportunity for public comment in the process. During fiscal crises, the city administration can make cuts without approval from the City Council.
In a letter to staff Friday, interim Fire Chief Melinda Drayton said the proposed plan is "likely to have an impact on emergency response." The standard response time, as defined by the National Fire Protection Association, is four minutes.
"We consistently utilize a risk management-based decision approach, and we intend to navigate this challenging fiscal crisis with the same degree of focused attention to minimize any gaps or delays in response," Drayton wrote.
One of the three engines that will be deactivated will be replaced with a two-person medical squad made up of a firefighter paramedic and a fire officer in the Oakland hills. The paramedic from each deactivated engine will be moved to a fire station in East Oakland, which receives the bulk of the city's calls for service.
The Oakland Fire Department responds to nearly 55,000 emergencies per year.
Miley also noted that Oakland fire crews provide service to neighboring cities.
"The loss of quick response from Oakland will start a cascade effect, leaving other cities without the fire protection they need," he wrote.
Emeryville Mayor Dianne Martinez sent a letter to the Alameda County Fire Department expressing her frustration with the closures. The Oakland Fire Department provides service to Emeryville through a contract with the Alameda department.
"Without any information on which stations will be closed by Oakland and when, nor on the cascading effect of closures, my community is left completely in the dark about the effects of these brownouts," Martinez wrote.
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