San Jose: Fire union and City Hall see better relationship ahead

SAN JOSE — For years the relationship between San Jose firefighters and City Hall has ranged from contentious to toxic. Bitter disputes over pension reform were followed by citywide budget cuts that eliminated dozens of firefighting jobs and resources. Firefighters felt vilified by city leaders.

But there is a new sense of optimism in the department. With a new mayor, an improved budget situation and renewed negotiations, San Jose firefighters see better days ahead, a sentiment shared by newly appointed interim fire Chief Curtis Jacobson.

“I think everyone is hopeful that things are going to turn around, meaning services will be restored,” said Jose Guerrero, vice president of the San Jose firefighters association. “I think people have a positive outlook because of where we have been. We believe the city is very honest in their efforts to restore services.”

The assessment might be surprising given the years of acrimony between the city and the firefighters union. During the battle over the Measure B pension cuts, police were the most vocal critics of City Hall. But for years before that, the firefighters union often butted heads with city officials. In 2009, a Santa Clara County civil grand jury report described the relationship between the union and city as “toxic,” with the union filing more than twice as many contract grievances as the city’s 10 other unions combined.

Now the union is signaling it is ready to get past the combative relationship with city leaders, having recently returned to the bargaining table to discuss a new contract.

Mayor Sam Liccardo said he is “grateful for the willingness” of the union leadership to try to “negotiate what had been very contentious issues around pay and benefits.”

“It seems like the mayor, the council and city manager are all on the same accord to recommitting to public safety with police and fire,” Jacobson said. “I’ve got a great workforce. The folks, even though we’ve had our setbacks and some folks have grumbled, what it boils down to is our greatest asset is great, motivated people who work hard, move forward with the mission.”

Budget cuts five years ago resulted in the closure of Station 33 on Saint Florian Way near Hillsdale Avenue, the elimination of four engines, one truck and the hazardous incident team, as well as a reduction of 79 firefighters. The department implemented “flexible brownouts,” the temporary removal from service of a fire truck or engine company to redistribute the staff to other locations.

Today there are 679 sworn firefighters, down from a 10-year high of 744 in 2010.

But there have already been some steps forward.

In March the city applied for federal funding to restore 14 firefighter positions eliminated in recent years. The city successfully applied for the same federal funding in 2011 and 2012, allowing the Fire Department to restore the jobs of 49 firefighters let go in 2010. If the city receives the grant — Jacobson expects to find out in June or July — staffing will jump to 693.

Meanwhile, fire officials are close to unveiling a strategic business plan two years in the making that will serve as a “road map” for the department’s future.

Jacobson said he’s looking to additional firefighters and resources to help the department return to meeting response time goals. The same month the city applied for the federal grant, Liccardo requested that the City Council provide the Fire Department with funding to implement new software technology to better identify the closest available unit when responding to a medical emergency.

At the same time, an outside agency will soon begin a comprehensive organization review to look at staffing, deployment and best practices, Jacobson said. That review should be presented to the city in September.

“Hopefully, it will justify some of the things we want to do,” Jacobson said.

As part of the emergency medical care system, firefighters in the county must arrive on scene within eight minutes in at least 90 percent of emergency calls and within 13 minutes for less serious calls.

San Jose has failed to hit those benchmarks in 24 of the past 27 months. The county has withheld making payments to the city since February 2014, citing the breach of contract.

An audit of San Jose response times showed that when the station nearest an emergency is contacted, more than 13 percent of the time that company is already responding to another call and it must be handled by the next-closest crew.

“We believe if we begin to restore those companies, we would be able to meet response times, like we were doing before those cuts took place,” Guerrero said.

Liccardo in March asked the city to explore having firefighters transport patients to hospitals, a job currently done exclusively by Rural/Metro, the embattled ambulance company. Liccardo acknowledged such a move would require more staffing and perhaps a change in how the Fire Department responds to medical emergencies.

For the past three years, the department has been operating five two-person units to respond to lower-level emergencies as a pilot program. Those two-person vehicles could potentially be placed in more fire stations across the city.

“It’s difficult to have a discussion about expanding services when we’re not meeting our primary objective of response times,” Guerrero said. “We’re not against adding additional squads. We need to address the needs of the customer. If that can be addressed with a two-person squad, it’s the right move.”

Even as the city searches for a permanent fire chief, Jacobson is moving forward.

“If and when that opportunity comes up,” Jacobson said about his possibly being named to the post. “I’ll look at it and see what’s best for me and what’s best for the department and what the city manager wants to do and cross that road when we get to it.”

Contact Mark Gomez at 408-920-5869. Follow him at Twitter.com/markmgomez.

http://www.mercurynews.com/crime-courts/ci_28130470/san-jose-fire-union-and-city-hall-see