Fire Alarm … Ambulance Reform Would Challenge Firefighters Union

By Craig Powell

In some sense, the city’s fire department is a 20th century relic operating in a 21st century world. And with its entrenched practices staunchly protected against change by what’s acknowledged to be the city’s most powerful union, Fire Fighters Local 522, the fire department has been essentially immune to efforts by city officials to drag it into modernity. Few have even tried to reform it; none has come anywhere close to succeeding.

To his credit, freshman Councilmember Jeff Harris has stepped up to the plate and is making cost-saving reform of the city’s ambulance service, operated by the fire department, a major priority. What’s more, he may very well succeed where most haven’t even bothered to try.

Why is the fire department so resistant to change? Fire chief Walt White is only the 21st chief in the department’s 165-year history. And he’s the first chief in city history to be appointed from outside of the ranks of the fire department. Organizational change is not exactly a prevailing value in the fire department. White didn’t have to travel far to take the job. Before joining the fire department last year, White spent his career with the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, a nearby district with a long history of paying firefighter salaries that are among the highest in California and a district board dominated by members elected with the financial support of Local 522.

Apart from history and tradition, the status quo in the fire department is vociferously defended by Local 522, whose political action committee typically brings in $150,000 annually and whose cash balance stood at $330,000 at the end of last year. It showers money on candidates for city council. When Angelique Ashby ran for the council in 2010, Local 522 not only gave her campaign $6,500; it spent another $26,826 in an independent expenditure campaign on her behalf. Such outsized political “investments” buy influence and power.

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