MORAGA -- An annual look at issues affecting all three Lamorinda communities has led to questions about a plan by the Moraga-Orinda Fire District to replace up to a dozen firefighter-paramedics who leave or retire with paramedics who won't fight fires.

At the annual Tri-Cities meeting held April 7 at Saint Mary's College, talk of that idea, along with questions about an ongoing proposal to consolidate an MOFD station in Orinda with a shuttered Contra Costa County Fire Protection District station in Lafayette, dominated an evening that also included updates from Lamorinda leaders on infrastructure and development projects.

Following an update by Fire Chief Stephen Healy on emergency preparedness activities, Moraga resident and former MOFD director Dick Olsen voiced concerns about the decreased number of firefighters on duty following cuts made last year.

Approved by the board of directors in October, those reductions lowered the daily staffing total from 19 to 17, despite the number of ambulances increasing from three to four. The district achieved the cuts by replacing a full-time ambulance at Station 45 on Orinda Way in Orinda with a "cross-staffed" ambulance, reducing staffing there from five firefighter-paramedics to 3 per shift.

Olsen also sounded a warning about a possible proposal to substitute "civilian" paramedics without firefighter rescue training or the ability to fight fires with paramedics on the other two cross-staffed and one full-time ambulances in the district.

Those cuts, Olsen asserted, would result in a net decline from 19 to 15 firefighters on duty, a 21 percent daily staffing reduction. "It will have an adverse impact on responses," he said.

The change. some say, could also impact how a team of firefighters known as a rapid intervention crew, or RIC, responds to fires. Such crews consist of a minimum of two firefighters stationed outside of a burning structure to provide rapid rescue of firefighters inside, per state requirements. The district has historically staffed those crews with firefighter/paramedics from an ambulance, Olsen later said.

According to its website, MOFD staffs ambulances with firefighter-paramedics to enable rapid rescue of firefighters and facilitate an "earlier fire attack."

In an interview, United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230 President Vince Wells agreed that the shift away from firefighter/paramedics could impact that response.

"If you're a non-safety ambulance, you're going to be standing in the back, sitting away from danger and waiting to get a patient," Wells said. "With this configuration ... (firefighters) will have to wait for another engine company." He said the union is not opposing the proposed measure, however.

Healy confirmed the district has discussed the idea, and said if the plan is approved, the new paramedics would be sworn MOFD employees but would receive a lesser retirement benefit through the county retirement system. The benefit formula for those non-safety "miscellaneous" employees is 2.5 percent of final average salary at age 67; Healy said the proposal has been part of ongoing contract negotiations, and that a memorandum of understanding between the district and union will be up for board adoption April 16.

Another possible outcome of the change could be the restoration of the full-time ambulance in Orinda.

"The principal reason this is being explored by the district is due to cost," Healy said. "Providing public fire protection is very expensive."

Still, the district, Healy said, is committed to providing the highest level of safety it can within its fiscal means. "For that reason, we've been exploring this idea and it is something you'll continue to hear about," Healy said.

Operational and financial agreements between MOFD and the Contra Costa County Fire District to operate a joint station on the Lafayette-Orinda border are also moving forward, Healy reported. Those agreements could be made public in the next two to three months, and would have to be approved by the MOFD board of directors and Contra Costa County supervisors who oversee ConFire.

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