PINOLE -- A resolution spelling out how to manage a $1.24 million federal grant to the Pinole fire department, including the reopening of a shuttered station, breezed through the City Council without debate Tuesday as the fire chief and firefighters union president stood by, ready to answer questions that never came.
The grant, under the Federal Emergency Management Agency's SAFER program -- the initials stand for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response -- is spread over two years and calls for the hiring of as many as four additional firefighters. The grant could be extended for a third year if used to hire post-9/11 Armed Forces veterans.
The language of the grant application, which the fire department submitted directly to the federal government, apparently without the knowledge of the city manager's office, calls for reopening the Pinole Valley Station, which has been closed since July 2011 in a move to save money.
The grant allows the city to sidestep for now a larger, regional debate over the current, traditional model of service delivery, which requires a fire apparatus staffed by at least three personnel on all calls, including the medical responses that constitute the bulk of the department's workload. Critics of Pinole's current service model say it is unsustainable and wastes resources, especially considering that American Medical Response, Contra Costa County's emergency medical services contractor, responds to many of the same calls minutes later or sometimes sooner. But defenders, led by the firefighters union, say the current model is time-proven and widely emulated internationally, and that it would be foolish to tamper with it.
Critics have proposed reforms such as deploying two-person medical vehicles for most calls, but the union's labor agreement with the city mandates a minimum staffing of three on all fire department calls.
Under Tuesday's resolution, approved unanimously on the consent calendar, overtime costs would be capped at $227,000 a year departmentwide. Pinole has two fire stations: No. 73, downtown, and No. 74, in the Pinole Valley. If minimum three-person staffing is unavailable on any shift, Station 74 would be "browned out," or temporarily shuttered, until a three-person contingent is available once more; meanwhile, the firefighters reporting for duty at Station 74 would be redeployed to Station 73.
Additionally, the city could brown out Station 74 preemptively if overtime costs outpace projections based on the annual cap.
Station 74 historically has generated a lot of firefighter overtime costs whenever someone called in sick or took time off.
The City Council had formally accepted the SAFER grant and its conditions in January, rendering Tuesday's action largely ceremonial.
The parameters of implementing the grant that the council approved Tuesday also include extending by three months, from June 30 through Sept. 30, the current arrangement to share a fire chief with the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District; the fire chief for both departments is Charles Hanley.
Pinole and Rodeo-Hercules currently are in a three-agency arrangement, dubbed Battalion 7, together with the Contra Costa County Fire District's San Pablo and El Sobrante stations, that functions as a de facto single fire department.
The city, meanwhile, continues to ponder the long-term future administration of its fire service. Alternatives include continuing the present arrangement of sharing a chief with Rodeo-Hercules; reverting to a stand-alone municipal fire department with its own chief; or contracting for service with Rodeo-Hercules. This fiscal year's Pinole fire budget is $3.05 million, including shared administrative costs with Rodeo-Hercules. Reverting to a stand-alone department would cost an additional $166,000 a year for administration.
A contract with Rodeo-Hercules would cost about $3.1 million a year and would contain an escalator clause; a draft calls for a 10-year term and a 4 percent annual escalator, but many deal points and potential additional costs have yet to resolved.
The SAFER grant and reopening Station 74 are expected to generate additional operating costs of about $21,700 a year for utilities, maintenance and equipment, as well as one-time costs of about $72,400, or $18,100 for each of the four firefighters to be brought on board, according to a staff report.