Nothing will burn up a group of firefighters quite like the threat of closing fire stations and laying off some of their uniformed members. Throw in some very curious bureaucratic moves and you’ll understand why tensions are running high among the Presidio’s firefighters and emergency medical service employees this week.
Officials from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Presidio Trust on Monday convened a review panel to consider recommendations from a consultant that suggested the two agencies — which jointly pay for fire services — could save money by closing one of the department’s two fire stations and eliminating up to 14 of 42 firefighters and emergency medical technician jobs. But the fact that they are considering the recommendations has members of the only full-time fire department in the U.S. National Park Service suggesting the odds are against them.
“I think that the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust will keep changing the rules until they get the result that they want,” said Robert Duggan, president of the union representing the firefighters. “This whole process is just to get service level reductions and staffing cuts. The way the system works here, they still get the same amount of money but it can be reallocated to other projects even if the department is cut.”
Duggan said he believes cuts are imminent because the park service recently decided to fill up to 10 positions with temporary staffers rather than hire full-time employees.
Federal park officials remain adamant that no decision has been reached and that the review panel — made up of four National Park Service employees and a financial consultant — is still analyzing the data.
“The point of all this is to see if we’re doing it right,” said Rich Weideman, spokesman for the GGNRA. “Over the years we’ve had an escalation in the cost of running the [fire safety] program.”
According to the consultant’s report, the Presidio Fire Department’s budget has grown from $1.5 million in 2001 to $4.6 million this year. Yet in doing the cost comparisons for the Presidio with a number of small towns and cities, the department was measured primarily against places with all-volunteer fire departments.
The way in which the recommendations came about is just one of the many things that troubles the Presidio firefighters. The $37,000 study on the park’s fire, rescue and emergency medical services was prepared by two consulting groups, but was never completed — the document is only a draft report. And the study was not put out to competitive bidding, as is usually required, because the National Park Service determined that the consultant had special expertise in fire safety — though Duggan said he has not been able to find any information showing the consultants had ever reviewed another NPS fire department.
Weideman said the lack of a completed study is why the two agencies decided to have a management review team look at it.
The potential ramifications are not small, especially when you consider that the two agencies are considering cutting one-third of the fire and emergency technician staff and reducing or eliminating paramedic ambulance service entirely. The report also recommended eliminating the park service’s fire station at Fort Cronkite in the Marin Headlands, where a number of youth camps are located, and contracting out fire services there.
Oddly, the Presidio Trust and the GGNRA are contemplating the Fire Department cuts soon after the trust announced that it had finally reached a deal to build 186 units of new housing at the old Public Health Service Hospital site off of Lake Street after years of battling with park neighbors.
When completed, that is sure to bump up the Presidio’s part- and full-time population of 5,200 people — and certain to raise questions about who is going to be handling fire and emergency calls for all the residents and employees in San Francisco’s national park. The environmental impact report on the housing project indicated that a third fire station would be needed.
“One of the things the panel is looking at is whether the department is overstaffed or has enough folks to take care of who is in the Presidio now,” said Dana Pope, spokeswoman for the trust. “But the fire station in the Presidio isn’t closing.”
Yet, as with so many things in the park’s oversight, there has been little or no public input. In the timetable of presentations for the panel review I saw, there was no slot allotted for public comment.
That’s probably not going to surprise a lot of people who have dealt with the two park agencies over the years. There are costs involved — the only question is who might pay the biggest price.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.