Staffing at nine Kern County Fire Department stations, including the one in Stallion Springs, will shrink on Monday, more fallout from the county’s budget woes.
The stations will remain open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year but with only two firefighters on shift rather than the current three.
The issue is likely to prompt some hard discussions as firefighters see that third firefighter as a critical tool in safely fighting fires.
But the county, and its fire department, are in the midst of a fiscal crisis.
According to County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop, the move will save $2 million to $3 million in overtime costs for the department, which is operating at a $17.8 million budget deficit.
No firefighters will lose their job, Alsop said.
The fire department is funded almost completely by property tax revenues that have been gutted by the decline in the price of oil and the resulting decrease in the value of Kern County’s sprawling oil and gas reserves.
The deal is the result of a new contract approved in the fall between the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Kern County Firefighters union.
In addition to Stallion Springs, the stations that will be affected are in Maricopa, Fellows, McKittrick, Woody, Old River, Frazier Park, Meadows Field and Randsburg.
Those are largely rural stations where annual call volumes are smaller than at other stations.
Alsop credited the fire department and Kern County Firefighters’ union with making the savings possible.
“This is a testament to the leadership of the fire department and its union,” Alsop said.
Discussions of the funding future for the Kern County Fire Department were tough over the summer as the county discussed how to strip millions of dollars in spending from its operations over the next four years.
The CAO’s budget office, under then-CAO John Nilon, pointed to the massive overtime in the fire department as a problem that needed fixing.
Because all fire stations must be manned at all times, every day, substantial overtime is produced when firefighters are off sick, out on vacation or called to work massive wildfires or other disasters as part of special incident teams.
Marshall said at the time the county is reimbursed for the overtime triggered by major fires and disasters. But the rest of the overtime, from vacations and illness, must be funded by the county.
Marshall argued that overtime — at time-and-a-half — is a better solution than hiring additional staff at full pay plus benefits, which can double the base cost of a firefighter.
Reducing staffing at the stations would, however, reduce the need for overtime and save the county money, Alsop said.
Under the agreement, the fire chief can still add more staff to the nine stations for specific emergencies.
In general, firefighters and Fire Chief Marshall have opposed the reduction in station staffing because — to enter a burning building to fight fire — three firefighters are generally needed; two to go in and one to monitor the situation for dangers like a collapsing roof or flare-up.
Kern County Firefighters President Derek Robinson said the union is concerned about the safety of its members and the people they are sworn to protect.
He questioned the capacity of the county to address the fiscal crisis facing it and the need to make such a serious move.
“We felt that there were more options to address what we were told was a $1.3 million deficit,” Robinson said.
The union is seeking a meet-and-confer session with the county, Robinson said, but there aren’t a lot of options because of the MOU.
But he said there will be a lot of concerned firefighters after they learn of the county’s decision.