PINOLE -- An on-again, off-again federal firefighting grant to the city is on again, as the City Council this week unanimously reversed a June decision to reject it, after initially accepting it in January.
But the council put off deciding whether to use the grant to reopen the shuttered Pinole Valley station or to institute a two-person medical squad in conjunction with a four-person fire engine at the downtown station, a service model that acknowledges the predominance of medical calls but is vehemently opposed by the firefighters union.
The council had come under fire from some residents of Pinole and neighboring fire districts as well as the union for its June 18 vote to turn down the Federal Emergency Management Agency's $1.24 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant. The grant is spread over two years.
Pinole is part of a three-agency Battalion 7 with the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District and the Contra Costa County Fire District's El Sobrante and San Pablo stations; once six stations strong, Battalion 7 is down to four stations, with the shuttering of the Pinole Valley and Rodeo stations in recent years.
The response protocol for structure fires generally is five engines, with 15 firefighters plus at least one battalion chief. Medical responses generally are handled by a three-person crew on a fire truck.
The June vote was 4-1, with Councilman Phil Green dissenting. But Mayor Debbie Long said new information surfaced during recent talks between Pinole officials, the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, and SAFER program officials in Washington, D.C.
That information apparently included the realization that the grant was not conditioned on reopening the Pinole Valley station, shuttered since July 2011. Former Fire Chief Charles Hanley and the union had interpreted the grant as having the dual purpose of hiring four new firefighters and reopening Station 74.
In a report to the council, interim fire Chief Carlos Rodriguez said that the grant mandates hiring four new firefighters but that it leaves it up to local officials how to deploy personnel by station or engine companies. The grant also prohibits laying off firefighters and mandates maintaining the new staffing level -- 19 in Pinole's case, with the addition of four new firefighters to the current force of 15, including a battalion chief -- for the two-year duration of the funding. Any firefighter lost to attrition would have to be replaced by a new hire, Rodriguez said.
On Tuesday, Long rebuffed Green's contention that the June 18 vote was a punitive attack on firefighters, saying it turned out as it did for budgetary reasons.
Officials fear a pending unfair labor practices complaint by the firefighters union before the California Public Employment Relations Board could be costly for the city, if successful.
Reopening Station 74 and staffing it and the downtown station with three firefighters each -- the minimum under Pinole's labor agreement with Firefighters Local 1230 -- would entail considerable overtime. Rodriguez estimates the cost at just shy of $300,000 a year, in addition to the cost of reopening the station, about $100,000 over two years.
By contrast, keeping Station 74 closed and running a four-person fire company and two-person emergency medical squad, would entail $150,000 or less a year in overtime, Rodriguez estimated. If one firefighter on a given shift is absent due to illness or vacation, Station 73 could deploy a two-person medical squad and a fire company with three firefighters. If two firefighters are absent, the department could "brown out" the emergency medical squad while deploying the engine with four firefighters. And if three of six firefighters are absent, the three present could staff the engine, according to Rodriguez's report.
Speakers at Tuesday's meeting, including Local 1230 President Vince Wells, Pinole fire Capt. Rich Voisey, another firefighter's wife and several other members of the public, mostly urged the council to accept the grant and reopen Station 74.
Meanwhile, a Rodeo-Hercules board member and retired firefighter, Bill Prather, in an email to Pinole officials, characterized the use of large fire apparatus for medical calls as "a holdover from the days when we did mostly fire business with the occasional medical call," and said a smaller, more versatile apparatus staffed by two people would be a more efficient model for most calls.
Officials did not announce a timetable to decide on whether to reopen Station 74. The official start date of the grant is Nov. 18.