OAKLAND (KPIX 5) – Due to the pandemic, the city of Oakland is facing a huge $62 million budget deficit this year. So far, one of the proposed cuts drawing the most heat is to the Fire Department.
With all the revenue it’s lost during COVID-19, Oakland has some difficult choices to make.
Mayor Libby Schaaf and City Administrator Ed Reiskin sent a letter to city employees last month saying without massive cuts, “…the General Purpose Fund will be insolvent before the end of the fiscal year… Even the City’s emergency reserve will be completely exhausted.”
So, in a long list of cuts, city staff is proposing three of the city’s 25 fire engine companies be put out of service. That represents 15% of the city’s firefighting force.
“We’ve never closed firehouses, we’ve never closed three at a time,” said Zac Unger, president of Oakland Firefighters Local 55. “That’s a number that is just astronomical. It’s going to mean that there are parts of Oakland that won’t be able to get a response from a fire engine for 10 to 15 minutes.”
Fire Chief Melinda Drayton seems to agree.
In a letter to fire personnel, Drayton wrote, “The plan will no doubt impact response times…service cuts at this level across the public safety agencies will have consequences, both known and unknown.”
The shutdowns could be rotated throughout the city, but the union president said that only endangers everyone equally.
“A fire doubles in size every minute and a heart attack victim loses about 10 percent of her brain capacity every minute,” Unger to KPIX 5. “So, if response times are extended by 5, 6, 8, 10 minutes, the results could be catastrophic for our citizens.”
The city said parking the engines would save $5 million, but the Police Department is already facing $15 million in budget cuts, so shouldn’t the fire department have to share some of the load?
Some Oakland residents weighed in.
“The firemen, the paramedics, that’s really the most important people we got out here,” said Oaklander Nate Savage. “They’re the first responders. They’re there before anybody else. If somebody was to get shot, the fire people are going to be there way before the police.”
But resident Anthony Walker disagreed.
“You’re cutting the police and then you’re keeping all the fire department? You can’t please everybody but you’ve got to please the most that you can,” Walker said. “So, it’s unfortunate, but if it has to be done, it has to be done.”
City officials said the fire department responds to about 55,000 emergencies per year. Closing three engine companies would likely cause approximately 14 calls per day to be diverted to other engine companies.