Proposition F - Neighborhood Firehouses

Voter Guide

This ordinance would add a section to the San Francisco Administrative Code requiring the Fire Department to “maintain and operate firehouses and emergency apparatus at the same location and to the same extent as existed on January 1, 2004” and requires all 42 fire stations to remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It further requires that any relocation of equipment be approved by the Fire Commission and Board of Supervisors.

Proposition F was placed on the ballot through a signature-gathering campaign by the Firefighters Union. Legally, ordinances such as Proposition
 F do not need to be on the ballot to become law, but can be passed through the normal legislative process. An ordinance can be submitted to the voters by the mayor alone, by four members
 of the Board of Supervisors, or by gathering signatures from the public. If an ordinance is passed by the voters, unless it specifically states otherwise (Proposition F does not) it can only be amended by a subsequent vote of the people.

SPUR’s Analysis

In April 2004 the Controller’s Office issued 
A Review of the San Francisco Fire-EMS System,
 a performance audit of Fire Department operations to determine how it could operate more effectively. The report’s findings and recommendations were far-reaching, including changes in staffing, prioritization of calls, the types of units sent to respond to particular calls, and methods to reduce the number of false alarms to which the department must respond. Among other findings, the report showed that the City has more firehouses per square mile than any comparable community. Some stations have fewer than three responses per day—often one medical incident and one false alarm. With fewer than 309 “working fire” responses (when an actual
 fire must be extinguished) citywide, less than eleven percent of all responses were fire-related. The Controller’s Office estimates consolidation of stations and reduction in equipment could
save the City an estimated $13 million per year without a significant impact on response times.

Recent budget changes, partially in response to the Controller’s audit, have resulted in a reduction in on-duty fire personnel and the “brownout”
 (or temporary periodic closure) of certain engine companies at stations that arguably are in close proximity to other fully staffed stations. According to the Controller’s Office, the current reductions save the General Fund about $6.6 million annually. In fact, the brownout program is only one of
 many recommendations implemented, and further changes could result in even greater cost reductions.

Firefighters Local 798 and some neighborhood associations have opposed these service reductions. The Firefighters Union argues 
that the “brown-out” policy reduces staffing to an unacceptable level, impacting response times in many neighborhoods. This initiative ordinance is intended to end the “brownouts.”

Supporters Claim...

Those who support Proposition F state:

  • Fire safety and emergency services are essential and should not be cut. Cost-saving proposals such as the Controller’s audit should not be trusted, and it is worth spending additional money to ensure public safety
  • The percentage of the General Fund devoted to the Fire Department has declined over the last 20 years, while emergency calls have tripled. Since 1970 the number of “on-call” firefighters has declined by 25 percent
  • It is worthwhile to have excess staffing at all times, so department will have the necessary capability to respond to a major emergency when one occurs

Opponents Claim...

Those who oppose Proposition F state:

  • Modern fire prevention systems, better equipment, and the merger of emergency medical services into the Fire Department have reduced the need for on-duty firefighters
  • Rotating closures pose no additional risk to public safety because we have more firehouses than we need. The Controller’s 2004 study found that coverage areas and travel times would not be negatively impacted by closure of certain stations
  • The cost savings from changes to the Fire Department frees up funds for other City priorities, such as public health, parks, and other important services without reducing the quality of fire coverage
  • This measure would lock in a funding level and the location and type of equipment indefinitely, unless the voters approve a change to the measure in a subsequent ballot measure. This measure will take away the ability to respond to changing conditions in future years

SPUR’s Recommendation

SPUR recommends a “No” vote on Proposition
 F. The changes to the Fire Department budget resulting in brownouts were not made lightly, but rather as a result of careful study and analysis by the appropriate agency. This is one of the rare instances when City government is actually working extremely well — it identified a way to reduce waste, then implemented its plans. Now, voters are being asked to reverse the outcome. If we want better City services, we need to support this process,
 not undermine this rare, encouraging effort to make City government operate more effectively.

Proposition F would lock into place a system of firehouses that was created in an era of many more “working” fires. The Fire Department, like all City agencies, needs the flexibility to change and evolve over time in response to changing conditions. This measure would permanently lock into place 2004’s emergency response system. The management of the department should be free to adjust work schedules in the most cost-effective manner, consistent with the stated goals for emergency response times.

The analysis has been done to show that San Francisco can afford modest reductions in firehouse staffing without sacrificing public safety. The public should not be scared into passing this measure 
by the false threat of inadequate protection.