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It wasn’t a heated exchange, but Santa Monica firefighters publicly disagreed with their chief over how many new positions should be added to the force.

City Council ultimately sided with Fire Chief Scott Ferguson, voting unanimously to add a new two-person rescue ambulance rather than a four-person engine.

The new rescue ambulance slots will result in the addition of six new workers — three two-person platoons — rather than the 12 new workers that would have been required of a four-person engine team.

James Altman, president of Santa Monica Firefighters Local 1109 and a captain in the department, told the council that the firefighters “respectfully disagree” with the chief’s plan.

“We need the funding for the new fire fighter positions,” he said. “As our city’s population continues to grow and tourism continues to boom, our fire department staffing levels have remained stagnant.”

Ferguson told council that addition of the ambulance crew is part of a pilot program intended to improve response times.

The ambulance will be sent in addition to the four-person engine and a two person private ambulances that currently show up on scene. The new ambulances will only augment services, he said.

Ferguson explained that on-site assessments will be made and the unnecessary units will be released back into service. If someone has a bee-sting, as Councilmember Ted Winterer used as an example, the four-person engine would likely be sent back. If they are having a heart attack, the entire crew will remain on-scene.

Altman told the council that a similar system was tried in the past but was disbanded in 2008 because of poor customer service.

“The fact is that the firefighters in this room have been here long before chief,” he said. “We are the boots on the ground. We are the youth of this organization.”

Ferguson explained that the rift comes down to a difference of opinion.

“What’s interesting is that we all want the same thing and in fact I admire what the firefighters came up to be able to share with you,” he told council.

Several residents spoke in support of a greater expansion of the Fire Department. Phil Brock, runner-up in the recent race for City Council, pointed to a steady increase in calls for service which, he said, points to a need for more resources. President of Mid-City Neighbors, Andrew Hoyer, also called for the money to be spent on expanded fire services. Friends of Sunset Park President Zina Josephs expressed concern about the two-person ambulance system.

“When my mother-in-law complained of dizziness in 1988, when the ambulance arrived at the hospital she had died of a heart attack,” she said. “When my mother began vomiting in 2007 a four-man crew arrived at our home, they diagnosed a heart block, they called ahead to the ER, a temporary pacemaker was ready and waiting when she arrived and she survived.”

City Manager Rod Gould explained to council that adding 12 additional firefighters would likely require sacrifices in other areas of the budget. It is possible, he said, that another six employees could be added to the Fire Department in two years.

Between now and then, Ferguson said, the Fire Department will be studying how the two-person crew works. If it works well, they could add an additional two-person platoon down the road. If it doesn’t, they could shift those positions onto the four-person engine.

Several council members expressed an interest in maintaining safe responses but said that they felt comfortable with the recommendations from the chief.

dave@www.smdp.com

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