LA County takeover of MBFD considered
by Mark McDermott
The City Council Tuesday night will consider the results of a preliminary study conducted by the Los Angeles County Fire Department regarding contracting out Manhattan Beach’s fire services to the county. The study, which has not yet been publicly released, will project costs and operational changes associated with the potential change, which would eliminate the Manhattan Beach Fire Department.
Mayor Nancy Hersman said the study was a matter of due diligence as the city grapples with the costs of maintaining its own fire department, and particularly with rising pension costs. She noted that after neighboring Hermosa Beach contracted its fire services with LA County in 2017, it became clear that at the very least the council should investigate what such a change would entail in Manhattan Beach.
“It really is our obligation as council members to always be looking at our budget and ways to maybe save money and still provide the wonderful services our residents want,” Hersman said. “Looking at this, after Hermosa went county, is something we really needed to do, and I think we would have been remiss if we didn’t. It has nothing to do with whether we have a great fire department or not; it’s about the cost. Small cities in a lot of places are doing the same thing because the cost has become prohibitive.”
MBFD this year cost the city $14.5 million, or about 12 percent of the overall city budget, representing the third-largest cost, behind the Police Department at 23 percent and Public Works at 37 percent, according to city budget documents. Hermosa Beach, which had a fire department half the size of Manhattan Beach’s 30 firefighting personnel, actually saw a slight increase in costs upon joining LACFD. In its first fiscal year, Hermosa paid the county $6.7 million, including pension payments, compared to the $6.2 million its own department would have cost. The real savings was in infrastructure, as well as long-term labor costs; Hermosa needed a new fire station and the county estimated it could build one for $9.5 million, $5.2 million less than the $14.7 the city projected the new building would cost if it had kept its own department.
More recently, in August, Redondo Beach received a preliminary study from LA County regarding contracting out fire services. The Redondo City Council declined to take the next step, a more detailed study and more concrete proposal, after its fire chief and a majority of its council argued cost savings would not be significant enough to outweigh losing its own department.
The Manhattan Beach City Council will be faced with a similar decision next week: whether or not to spend $24,000 to commission a more extensive county study.
Councilperson Richard Montgomery stressed that no decision has been made, one way or the other, and that the council remains open to either maintaining MBFD or proceeding with more study. He described the initial study as “step one” in a decision-making process that will involve a lot of public input.
“This council respects our fire department, first and foremost,” Montgomery said. “It also has a fiduciary duty to review our expenses across all departments. This study is a preliminary review of what LA County could offer us and at what cost. We are all aware of the fact that neighboring Redondo Beach did not want to spend $30,000 for an in-depth review citing ‘no real cost savings.’ To us, it is about providing the best public safety we can to our residents…No decision regarding LA County Fire has been made and will not be anytime soon.”
Hersman said that one area of obvious savings the county would bring is the fact that not all its firefighters are trained as paramedics, a requirement within MBFD that also means firefighters are paid more. All firefighters are trained in basic aid, as emergency medical technicians, Hersman noted, which is sufficient for many calls but not advanced calls, such as heart attacks. Hersman said this will be one among many decision points: deciding if it makes financial sense to have an entire fire staff trained as paramedics, or if equivalent service could be provided with a mix of EMTs and paramedics.
“So one of our big expenses is all our firefighters are paramedics so they are being paid more,” Hersman said. “It’s just a matter of bringing that to the forefront, bringing it to residents to make sure they have information on this…It’s preliminary due diligence. We are just looking at what we might save if we went to county, in order to get all the facts.”
The Manhattan Beach Firefighters Association said, in a statement, that there are pros and cons for a small city to contract out its fire services. But MBFA also emphasized the increasing importance of paramedic work.
“Every member of the Manhattan Beach Fire Department through the rank of Captain is a Paramedic,” MBFA said. “That’s a huge bang for the buck for the city and the community. Our 911 call volume has increased 58 percent over the last 15 years, yet our staffing levels have remained the same. We now rely heavily on auto and mutual aid from neighboring fire departments for assistance.”
MBFA, which prior to the arrival of Chief Daryn Drum last year had been at odds with both former chief Robert Espinosa and at times city leadership, expressed confidence in both.
“We are confident that our City Council will make a well-informed and educated decision on what is best for our community given there are many factors to take into account,” MBFA said.
“Our new fire chief, Chief Drum, has been at the helm for less than five months. We have confidence in him and are hopeful he will evaluate our current service model of our fire department and look for ways of enhancing our services to address the reliance on auto and mutual aid from surrounding cities and still meet the needs of the Manhattan Beach community.”
Finally, MBFA expressed hope that next week’s meeting would include “an unbiased and factual assessment” regarding the changes in services and costs that would come with LACFD taking over the department.
“This is an important decision that our policymakers and community are currently facing,” MBFA said, “because it decides which fire department will provide emergency services to the Manhattan Beach community for decades.”