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Will San Carlos Privatize Its Fire Department?

| April 20, 2011
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As part of an effort to close a $3.5 million budget gap, the city of San Carlos is considering several options in reorganizing its municipal fire services, including contracting out to a private company.

For the past several years San Carlos has shared the costs of a joint department with neighboring Belmont. That relationship has gone sour and San Carlos hopes that restructuring will save at least $1 million a year. If San Carlos privatized its fire service, mayor Omar Ahmad said, he thought the city would be the first California city to do so.

Private firm Wackenhut Services Inc., which has submitted a 56-page proposal in its bid for the contract, is a serious contender.

Wackenhut is based in Florida, but its parent company, G4S, is a multinational conglomerate best known as a security-service provider. The fire-services branch of G4S originated at Falck, a Danish company that merged with Securitor to become G4S in 2004. Falck is the largest ambulance operator in Europe and already runs 65% of the municipal fire stations in Denmark. But, as fire experts I talked to pointed out, the risks and services required for different areas can be very different.

Wackenhut’s plan offers several tiered options at various prices. The company wants to sign a 10-year contract that would include as part of its service a focus on fire prevention and education, a commitment to gaining various national level certifications, and the payment of a performance fee if the company fails to meet established standards.

Stewart Gary, the retired chief of the Livermore Fire Department and a fire department consultant for neighboring Belmont and several other San Mateo county cities, says that much in the Wackenhut proposal is attractive, but questions the unintended consequences of doing away with unionized labor and many of the standards now in place for firefighters. Wackenhut proposes making employees work 72 hours a week instead of the standard 56, and would provide fewer benefits.

Additionally, Gary wonders how a privately run fire department would interact with its regional partners in terms of training and coordination. If surrounding cities retain their public employee benefit packages, would San Carlos firefighters constantly be looking to jump ship? He thinks the unknown effects of privatizing entail a fair amount of risk.

Other fire service options on the table besides privatization include contracting out to Redwood City and instituting a stand-alone department. Though Mayor Omar Ahmad said he’s impressed by what he called Wackenhut’s innovative approach, he hasn’t ruled anything out yet.

Meanwhile, the local firefighter’s union is worried. Lawyers for the union have already filed a letter claiming that it is illegal for San Carlos, a general law city, to contract essential city services to a private company. Whether or not that’s true, it probably means a protracted — and expensive — legal battle for San Carlos.

For more on this story, listen to Stephanie Martin’s interview yesterday with Sheldon Gilbert, president of the California Fire Chiefs’ Association.

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About the Author ()

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported, produced and blogged on health, climate change and local news for KQED in San Francisco. Reach Katrina Schwartz at kschwartz@kqed.org.
  • Tony Slimick
  • http://www.gjel.com/blog Ben Buchwalter

    This is such an interesting issue. Proponents of privatization seem to argue that government entities are inherently more efficient when privatized. But in my opinion, government isn’t best served when it functions like a business. For something as important as a fire department, upping employee hours to 72 hours per week while reducing benefits sounds not only thoughtless, but also irresponsible. Another aspect of privatization that also worries me is the potential for prioritizing some neighborhoods over others. For a fire department, this would be unacceptable.

    Thanks for the great story!

  • GG

    I would be concerned not only over the 72 hours a week, but what happens when mutual aid is needed from surrounding areas? A privatized area shouldn’t receive help from Public Agency’s, and could the privatized company provide all the manpower necessary in a 3-4 alarm fire? Doubt it. And I wouldn’t want to be the resident that would have to face that situation with my property on the line.