Despite Rumors on Social Media, Sierra Madre City Council Has Not Disbanded its Fire Department

SMFD is working towards becoming a career department with full-time personnel. – Courtesy photo / Facebook, @cityofsierramadre

Originally posted Jan. 14 @1:17 p.m. / Last updated Jan. 17 @10:35 a.m.

City manager responds to cries of foul play

By Terry Miller

At the City Council meeting on Jan. 8, 2019 the City Council approved a non-binding term sheet which would allow the City of Sierra Madre and the City of Arcadia to explore a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for fire response services. Since the meeting took place the city has received several inquiries and questions about what was voted on and approved.

City Manager Gabriel Engeland said that the city has a fire department and is continuing its work towards becoming a career department with all full-time, paid personnel. Sierra Madre is having an engineer’s exam this month and will be able to hire two additional full-time engineers. This is important as these hires will complete the transition to a career department and Sierra Madre will be staffed similarly to the majority of stations in the Verdugo system. Once Sierra Madre Fire Department (SMFD) is fully staffed, the city intends to once again ask the Verdugo system to allow Sierra Madre to participate in automatic aid, similar to peer fire organizations.

The goal of this council, and previous councils for the past decade, has been to participate in automatic aid in the Verdugo system. Over the past two budget cycles this council has invested in the fire department and hired six full time fire medics and budgeted for three full-time engineers.

At the time the decision was made to move to a career department, with full time fire employees. There were a total 61 full-time employees in the entire city. The addition of nine new full-time positions, bringing the total full-time positions to 70, represented a great increase in cost as well as a large increase by percentage of full-time positions in the city. This council has remained committed to improving public safety and the cost of the investment to transition from a volunteer department to a career department has not lessened this commitment.

This council continues to invest an overwhelming portion of the limited resources available into public safety. The discussion for this council, as evidenced by their actions, has not been about cost, but about safety. Sierra Madre must become a participating member in automatic aid. Automatic aid will provide a greater opportunity to provide public safety resources to Sierra Madre.

The council approved a non-binding term sheet with Arcadia, which allows staff to explore an MOU between the two cities for fire response services. “The decision made by the City Council on Jan. 8, 2019 opens the door for discussion; it is not the final step in the process.” The term sheet outlines broad areas of service which need to be approved or agreed upon to be included in the MOU. The MOU has not been finalized and before any MOU for services could be approved, it would need to be heard by the City Council in an open and public meeting.

In addition to the City of Sierra Madre, the City of Arcadia would need to approve the MOU, as well as other regulatory agencies such as the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the owners of the Verdugo system, and potentially members of the Verdugo system and Area C. The council meeting was the first step in a process that, if it reaches its conclusion will be long, requiring approval by several agencies and multiple municipalities. If this proposal advances, the public in general, and Sierra Madre residents specifically, will have multiple opportunities to share their opinions and make comments.

The City Council was not involved in the formation or creation of the MOU and the public meeting was noticed properly. Though this action may have caught people by surprise, the discussion on fire services has been taking place in Sierra Madre for a long time.

There are several options and configurations which could ultimately emerge if an MOU is agreed upon; however, there has never been a scenario discussed where Sierra Madre doesn’t have an engine or apparatus capable of responding to fires in an emergency.

Automatic aid agreements are formal contracts signed by each participating agency or municipality. Sierra Madre cannot require any agency to agree to automatic aid. Historically, Sierra Madre was not a participating member in automatic aid for fire because the city relied on the services of a volunteer fire force.

As Sierra Madre continues to transition to a career department, with fully paid staff, and all full-time positions on the fire engine, the discussion of participating in automatic aid becomes more realistic. However, because the agreements are signed voluntarily, there is no guarantee that changes to staffing, training, or equipment, or any other changes, will lead to Sierra Madre being included in automatic aid.

The goal of this council remains to become a participating agency in automatic aid, which is critical for the safety of the residents. This is the primary reason the city is exploring all options which may be available.

The city does not have any signed mutual aid agreements. When agencies in the Verdugo system respond to fires, or other calls for service in Sierra Madre, they do so voluntarily. These cities could decline to respond to Sierra Madre emergencies or they could respond to the emergencies and then provide a bill for their services. Fires, or other emergency situations, which require a multi-agency response, similar to the fire on Mt. Wilson trail last year, quickly achieve reimbursable costs in the range of millions of dollars. Without signed mutual or automatic aid agreements Sierra Madre is vulnerable both from a public safety response and liability standpoint. Automatic aid makes Sierra Madre residents safer in an emergency; both in public safety response and in reducing liability.

The city has automatic aid agreements with the Angeles National Forest (ANF) and the county, which responds from the station on New York Avenue in Altadena. The city appreciates the support of its partner agencies, while also recognizing the automatic aid agreements currently signed are not similar in the scope, nature, response time, or personnel and fleet commitments, as the automatic aid agreements in the Verdugo system. In other words, the current agreements would not provide the resources that Sierra Madre would comparatively receive if it were members of automatic aid.

Moving down parallel paths gives Sierra Madre the greatest chance to participate in automatic aid. If Sierra Madre is accepted into automatic aid when the fire department is fully staffed, there would not be a reason to pursue any fire response agreement with a peer agency. However, if the city does not explore all options which have presented themselves, and the city is again denied access to automatic aid, residents will remain vulnerable for the reasons discussed above.

Once the final two engineers are hired the city will have staffing which is comparable to peer agencies and partners in the Verdugo system. When the transition is complete the city will again ask to be included in automatic aid.

January 17, 2019

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Terry Miller

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