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Monday, May 2, 2011

Wackenhut

Most people, when they have need of the fire department, call 911 and they get the help they need. They never stop to consider exactly who is coming into their home in their time of emergency.


Recently, the City of San Carlos, has been having to make some tough decisions, including just that. Who to send into the homes and businesses in the their jurisdiction during an emergency. San Carlos, like many other cities, has been hit hard by today's economy. The city can no longer afford to operate their FD the same as it had in the past. On Oct 12 of this year their contract with the city of Belmont will end. That city chose not to continue with the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department. So now the city council has to decide how to be able to fund their fire department under the strict budget.

As part of the process, the city opened up the bidding process so as to find the best solution to it's needs. When this happens there are usually several options on the table. I know that when my former department merged with my current department there were initially 4 or 5 options being entertained.

Just before the bidding process closed a private company, Wackenhut, threw its hat into the fray. This caused quite a stir to put it mildly.

There are several reasons why I think that going to a private company for fire/EMS is a bad idea, some of them anecdotal, some analytical. And I will say right up front that I am totally biased.

Wackenhut says that they can save the city of San Carlos a lot of money by contracting with them. And they say they can maintain the same level of service. In the very next breath they have said that by service they mean the minimum staffing levels of 3 firefighters per engine/truck.

I disagree with the first part of this statement, I agree with the second. I've even heard that they can staff 4 firefighters per engine/truck and still save the city money. That's all fine but is that all that they need to maintain the same level of service. I submit that it is not.


Let's say that you have a 1930 Ford Model A in completely restored condition and it's involved in an accident. Are you going to want to take your classic car to the local high school auto shop class or to the guy that's been restoring Model A's for 30 years? If you're just looking at sheer manpower, such as is the case with Wackenhut, the teenagers would be the right decision. I think we can all agree that that would be a mistake.

Wackenhut is currently hiring for a firefighter position and is offering a starting wage of $8.60 an hour.
That means, based on a 40 hour work week, their firefighters are making $17,888 a year (I understand that the firefighters would be working a 72 hour work week). That to me screams that it's a starter job. A place to work and build your resume before going somewhere else. Once your employees have some experience and are marketable they'll move on. This revolving door leads to an department that is young and inexperienced. Compounding this problem is that the only kids that would be applying would be those that haven't been hired somewhere higher paying. Doesn't sound to me like they are meeting the existing standard of service.

At this point in time I am not aware of, nor can I find any community in the United States that is currently receiving its fire protection and EMS from a 'for profit' entity. I have heard Wackenhut officials say that they have plenty of firefighting experience, which has come from protecting federal facilities all over the country. To someone that doesn't know any better this may seem like sound reasoning. However, the federal government contracts with the department for whom I work. I can tell you first hand that the experience that you gain on a government facility is not at all what you would need to cover a metropolitan area. Their call volume is much lower and there is a limited diversity of calls.

I could bring up issues with the amount of time that they are planning to have the firefighters work each week and that having firefighters on duty for too long could be detrimental to performance. But I work a fair amount of overtime so I'm not going to go there (but there are studies to say we should be limiting the number of hours a firefighter can work in a week).

In a radio interview on KQED the president of the California Fire Chiefs' Association, Sheldon Gilbert brings up a great point. the protection of its citizens is one of the few specific constitutional obligations of the government. He also goes on to explain how, in the private sector, the company is responsible to its share holders. We as government employees are accountable to the citizens.


Partly in  response to this argument I heard Wackenhut vice president Rick Tye say, "When you're a contract provider, you audition everyday for your continued job. So quality of service is job number one, so it's very, very important to the community and it's very important to us." That's comforting unless it's your house burning to the ground because the could meet the same level of service that was provided. It's ok unless it's your mom dying from a heart attack that wasn't caught or treated because the medics on the engine company are new and inexperienced. I'm sure the fact that the company might lose its contract would be a warm blanket of comfort to the families if those things happened.

I'm not the only one thinking this way. Joe Caprioni, a citizen of San Carlos asked, "What happens if they fail? Will any of you guarantee that they can save my house in a fire?"

Even though the city of San Carlos could have saved more money the city council decided unanimously this week that they would not seek to enter into a contract for services with Wackenhut. Instead they are looking to neighboring Redwood city for a joint partnership.

I am very curious as to how you feel about all this. How would you feel having a for profit company such as Wackenhut providing fire protection and EMS in your area
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