Safety Officials Threaten Mutual Aid Cuts

DEC. 2, 2010


A legislative committee that met this week to discuss whether budget cuts to California’s emergency management agencies would threaten mutual aid agreements, primarily reiterated the vastly divergent positions between agency directors who defended their departments’ budgets, and conservative legislators who argued that no state agencies should be exempt from budget cuts during this economic crisis.

Absent from the meeting: Any discussion of how public safety agencies could stretch their existing resources, through pension reform, privatization or other cost-cutting measures. All the legislators, Democratic and Republican, agreed with the premise that tough budget times leave the state with the choice of finding new revenue or cutting existing public safety services.

Chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management, Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, warned that even with California’s ability to withstand severe disaster challenges, continuing budget cuts may negatively affect agencies’ mutual aid agreements.

Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, argued from an economic position and said, “Until we have a restored economy, it’s a matter of priorities. But public safety is always the priority.”

Prior to the hearing, the committee had asked each agency to be prepared to discuss whether California’s police, fire and emergency management and medical agencies can continue to mutually assist each other, with severe budget cuts to many programs.

“California has had a first-class mutual aid system in place since the 1950s,” said Matthew Bettenhausen, secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, “which ultimately has saved the state a great deal of money. However, in recent years, local government officials during these tight budget times, are seeking reimbursement for assisting neighboring jurisdictions after a disaster.”

Besides fighting fires and natural disasters, Bettenhausen described the recent Johannes Mehserle verdict, which caused protests in Oakland and Los Angeles to turn violent. He said that first responders coordinated to assist each other in order to keep the protests from becoming worse.

In addition to policing issues, Bettenhausen identified potential earthquakes, flooding and forest fires as requiring coordinated mutual aid of emergency services.

Nathan Trauernicht with the California Fire Chiefs Association, and Curtis Hill with the California State Sheriffs’ Association, addressed the severity and impact of cutbacks to fire and police, and said that layoffs decrease the ability to provide mutual aid in the state. Trauernicht said that the fire strike team has been cut from 35 to 25 members, as well as cuts to the number of available engines, and available overall personnel.

“As local resources are reduced, statewide sources and mutual aid is reduced. We have to be able to retain staffing. Currently, the CHP is filling in day-to-day in local regions,” said Hill.

While no one disagreed with the necessity for mutual aid between agencies, Dutton challenged the prioritizing of the many non-emergency programs police and fire departments have. “At the local level, they don’t want to cut back. But they are willing to sacrifice cops on the street instead, or have the state pay for them.” He suggested “un-funding non-emergency programs, to get priorities in order.”

“We need to hold their feet to the fire at the local level, and set priorities. The idea of throwing in money is not the answer. We must cut non-essential services,” said Dutton.

Hill said sheriffs “haven’t been able to purchase the things they need,” and pushed for the continuance of the Vehicle Licensing Fee as a way to fund police and fire at current funding levels. 2009 legislation increased the VLF fee from .65 percent to 1.15 percent, amounting to $1.15 per 100 dollars of the purchase price of a vehicle.

Of the VLF increase, the DMV states on its Web site, “0.15 percent is transferred to the Local Safety and Protection Account established in the Transportation Tax Fund.”

Both Trauernicht and Hill said maintaining the VLF is a priority, and requested that the Legislature not allow it to expire in June 2011.

Responding to the fire chiefs and sheriffs, Kehoe said, “Both Governor-elect Jerry Brown and Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) are talking seriously about local level control, and having locals step up with funding.”

But discussions about local control have been on the legislative radar for some time. In June, CalWatchdog covered a press conference held by Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg and Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-San Diego, where they discussed “restructuring,” “raising revenue” and “local control.” And in November, Steinberg’s Budget director Craig Cornett, said during a hearing that Steinberg may propose putting more government services under local control, and insisted that there would be “broader public support for funding those services” if they were provided and funded at the local level. And because some legislators want to make it easier for county residents to be able to increase taxes by a majority vote, many believe the local control issue is merely a tax increase ploy.

Not everyone at the hearing agreed with the local control ideas. “Local control and realignment means dumping on the local level. We don’t have the money. We are laying people off, and not just eliminating positions,” said Hill.

“While emergency responders are still able to respond, there will be blood lessons,” said Bettenhausen. “What has to happen is public safety has to be priority. The state has the obligation to support local communities.”

Representatives from CAL FIRE, as well as the California Highway Patrol, were joined by the California Department of Public Health and California Emergency Services Medical Authority to address specific agency roles in mutual aid.

Chief Ken Pimlott, acting CAL FIRE director, spoke about the aging “Vietnam-era helicopters” his agency uses, and the high cost to maintain them. Pimlott said the old helicopters were a potential danger, and were restrictive in use.

CHP Chief Scott MacGregor said his 7,700 sworn officers fill in all over the state where they are needed, as local law enforcement officers are cut.

The hearing did not address the redundant Emergency Medical Technician services within emergency responder agencies, or why so many different emergency agencies respond to medical emergency calls.

The emergency medical agencies provided information about the medical supplies they have “stockpiled” in the event of a serious disaster. Chief of Disaster Medical Services for the state’s emergency medical agency, Lisa Schoenthal explained that they have “full mobile hospitals” ready for deployment if a disaster was to occur in the state. Kehoe asked how frequently the emergency medical authority has deployed these hospitals. “Not in a real world event,” said Schoenthal.

Of the 197 medical emergencies dealt with last year, Schoenthal said that 182 were H1N1 flu clinics.

Betsy Lyman with the Department of Public Health, said they were the lead agency for the H1N1 pandemic, as well as the whooping cough outbreak last year. “California benefited by stockpiling resources and medical supplies during the H1N1,” said Lyman. However, the cost to stockpile and maintain the supplies is approximately $4 million annually, according to Lyman. “Our 2006 appropriation for this ends in June.”

Lyman also stressed the need for preparedness in the event of a bio-terrorism crisis.

Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, said that while he was intrigued with the stockpiling, the federal government should play a bigger role financially, and provide surplus equipment through homeland security grants.

Dutton suggested that the federal government should have more responsibility with emergency preparedness in the state because of the threat of terrorism and bio-terrorism. “The federal government has invested a great deal into state agencies for public health preparedness, and grants from the Center for Disease Control for bio-terrorism, including in the food and water supply,” said Lyman.

Representatives from local fire and police departments spoke about the importance of the mutual aid system to their agencies, and detailed the cuts they have made. Several police and fire captains said many of the agencies are not able to respond outside of their departments to the mutual aid system because of vast budget cuts. And at issue, are timely reimbursements from the state when local agencies assist in other counties.

Addressing the fragile state economy, Murrieta Republican Assemblyman Kevin Jefferies said, “We’re fighting over crumbs at this moment. California needs to find ways to reinvigorate its private sector in order to get taxes to pay for you guys.”

“We’ve been discussing this since 2003, and need to have some real honest discussions,” said Kehoe. “The difficult economy is going to continue.  As much as I want to say we are grateful for your services, I know there are going to be lots of people fighting for those dimes.”

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