Fire plan in Atwater smoldering

ATWATER -- A plan to hire Cal Fire to fight city blazes will smolder while elected officials wait for the smoke to clear over the effects on the department.

Last week during a City Council workshop, officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection explained four proposals that would let them run Atwater's department.

Under any agreement, the city would retain some control, including staffing levels and keeping the city's logo on engines. The current staff would be merged into the state agency, with some firefighters probably needing to move to other stations.

Day-to-day functions, training and administration would be covered by Cal Fire under an annual contract.

While there's no pressure to sign a deal with the state agency, Cal Fire official Scott Dunlap said he hopes the city makes a decision soon.

"We're not here to sell ourselves," he said. "We only want to be here if you want us."

The City Council is scheduled to learn more about the Fire Department's short- and long-term needs during a consultant's presentation next month. The report should cut through the haze and give the city a better idea of what to do.

"We need to compare apples and apples," Councilman Gary Frago said. "(Cal Fire has) not done that."

Many questions remain

The councilman and former firefighter said he wants to know, for example, whether Cal Fire would take over all of the department's responsibilities, including fire inspections at businesses. If so, Frago asked, has that been factored into the estimated costs?

Also, the city would no longer be able to negotiate union contracts, so it would have to deal with major increases in pay and benefits, he said.

"I'm open-minded but there are a lot of questions that have to be answered first," Frago said.

Though each of the four Cal Fire proposals would cost the city more, ranging from $190,000 to nearly $1 million, Mayor Pro Tem Lesa Rasmussen said the figures are misleading because the firefighters will receive an additional 11 percent in their paychecks for cost-of-living increases by January 2009.

The added salary expenses haven't been factored into the existing $1.9 million fire budget used in Cal Fire's comparison, she said.

The city may save about $100,000 when all the math is done, Rasmussen said. It also will have access to statewide firefighting resources. "We'll get better coverage," she said.

The proposal that closely mirrors current staffing levels would add another firefighter, so that both stations always would have two employees ready to head to emergency calls.

Atwater Firefighters Association President Tim Adams said the union will meet Sunday to discuss how many members would favor the switch if they were given all the requested benefits.

At the top of the list are health insurance levels and retirement plans. "We want to keep it on the same level," Adams said. "We don't want to lose."