It’s that time of year for budget talks in Merced, and the City Council is asking if now is the right time to end its policy on Merced Fire Department brownouts, a practice that entails leaving one fire engine unstaffed for the occasional shift.
Since 2012, the department has operated under the policy, a cost-saving attempt to solve low staffing and budget issues. The city seems to be slowly recovering from the Great Recession and housing market crash that hit it so hard, and there might be money in the budget to squash brownouts in the coming fiscal year.
The city has five fire engines and a firetruck, which carries specialty tools and equipment. A brownout occurs when three firefighters are sick or out from work for any reason, Chief Shawn Henry said. Rather than spend overtime dollars to pay firefighters to cover the shift for those who are out, the department leaves one engine at the 16th Street station unstaffed.
Henry said if the department is responding to two calls at the same time during a brownout, crews are in jeopardy of not getting to an emergency or fire by its goal of under six minutes, the industry standard.
Minutes can be vital when a person stops breathing. “Brain death occurs between four and six minutes. That’s why we try to hit that mark, for the medical side of it,” he said. “Also, for fires, if we go beyond that, the fire has a greater chance of (spreading).”
From July 1 through Jan. 31, he said, the department has used brownouts 84 times. That has saved the city about $192,000 in overtime dollars, he said.
City staff is still looking at the best option to end brownouts to present to the City Council before budget talks are done.
To end the policy, the department would need more funding to either hire more firefighters or pay for more overtime hours. Each option comes with pros and cons.
Paying for more overtime is quicker and less expensive than hiring more firefighters, said Chad Englert, president of the Merced City Firefighters Union Local 1479. But there is a chance that members of the crew get overworked and burn out, he said.
Hiring more firefighters is the best way to do away with brownouts, he said, though it is significantly more expensive.
He said now is the time to end the policy. “We just think the city is in a much better position than they have been, so why would we not give the community the fire protection that it’s supposed to have?” he said.
City Manager John Bramble said the details of what either option would cost have not been worked out. He said he’s waiting to hear estimates from the department’s chief.
An estimate presented last year by the interim fire chief may give a preview of what the city is looking at. To hire five more firefighters, last year’s estimate said, would cost $571,577, compared with the cost to bump up the overtime budget with an estimated $242,827.
Bramble said hiring more staff is the only way to truly eliminate brownouts. He said city staff will also look at a combination of hiring firefighters and upping the overtime budget as another option.
The city will have the money to cover either option, if early estimates hold true. Staff is projecting the council will have roughly $750,000 in general fund dollars that it could use on new programs or staff in the coming fiscal year.
City staff is set to delve further into the budget for public safety, including firefighters and police, during the priority-setting session scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at City Hall.
Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.