City of Sierra Madre and City of Arcadia Fire response services FAQ

Responses to Frequently Asked Questions

At the City Council meeting on January 8, 2019 the City Council approved a non-binding term sheet which would allow the City of Sierra Madre and the City of Arcadia to explore an MOU for Fire response services.  Since the meeting took place the City has received several inquiries and questions about what was voted on and approved.  This FAQ is intended to provide additional information and respond to some of the common questions and themes which have arisen.

Comment: “The City Council voted to disband the Fire Department.”

Answer: This is not true.  The City has a Fire Department and is continuing its work towards becoming a career department with all full-time, paid personnel.  Sierra Madre is having an Engineer’s exam this month and will be able to hire two additional full-time Engineers.  This is important as these hires will complete the transition to a career department and Sierra Madre will be staffed similarly to the majority of stations in the Verdugo system.  Once SMFD is fully staffed, we intend to once again  ask the Verdugo system to allow Sierra Madre to participate in automatic aid, similar to our peer Fire organizations.

Comment: “This is a money grab” or “the city is selling out the Fire Department to save some cash.”

Answer: The goal of this Council, and previous Councils for the past decade, has been to participate in automatic aid in the Verdugo system.  Over the past two budget cycles this Council has invested in the Fire Department and hired 6 full time Fire Medics and budgeted for 3 full-time Engineers. 

At the time the decision was made to move to career department, with full time Fire employees, there was a total of 61 full-time employees in the entire City.  The addition of 9 new full-time positions, bringing the total full-time positions to 70, represented a great increase in cost as well as a large increase by percentage of full-time positions in the City.  This Council has remained committed to improving public safety and the cost of the investment to transition from a volunteer department to a career department has not lessened this commitment. 

This Council continues to invest an overwhelming portion of the limited resources available into public safety.  The discussion for this Council, as evidenced by their actions, has not been about cost, but about safety.  Sierra Madre must become a participating member in automatic aid.  Automatic aid will provide a greater opportunity to provide public safety resources to Sierra Madre.

Comment: “This was decided in the dark” or “This happened too quickly” or “This is a violation of the Brown Act” or “This must have happened illegally.”

Answer: The Council approved a non-binding term sheet with Arcadia, which allows staff to explore an MOU between the two cities for Fire response services.  The decision made by the City Council on January 8, 2019 opens the door for discussion; it is not the final step in the process.  The term sheet outlines broad areas of service which need to be approved or agreed upon to be included in the MOU.  The MOU has not been finalized and before any MOU for services could be approved, it would need to be heard by the City Council in an open and public meeting. 

In addition to the City of Sierra Madre, the City of Arcadia would need to approve the MOU, as well as other regulatory agencies such as the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the owners of the Verdugo system, and potentially members of the Verdugo system and Area C.  The Council meeting was the first step in a process that, if it reaches its conclusion will be long, requiring approval by several agencies and multiple municipalities.  If this proposal advances, the public in general, and Sierra Madre residents specifically, will have multiple opportunities to share their opinions and make comments. 

The City Council was not involved in the formation or creation of the MOU and the public meeting was noticed properly.  Though this action may have caught people by surprise, the discussion on Fire services has been taking place in Sierra Madre for a long time.

Comment: “We won’t have an Engine in Sierra Madre if this goes through” or “We will be alone in a disaster and we won’t be able to respond.”

Answer: As was stated at the Council meeting, the term sheet is separate from the equipment and fleet we currently operate and maintain in the SMFD.  There are several options and configurations which could ultimately emerge if an MOU is agreed upon, however, there has never been a scenario discussed where Sierra Madre doesn’t have an Engine or apparatus capable of responding to fires in an emergency.  I understand the concerns being raised with these types of comments but stating Sierra Madre will not have appropriate emergency response capabilities or equipment, both locally and through automatic aid agreements, is speculation that is not based on facts.

Comment: “Why can’t Sierra Madre be in automatic aid like everyone else?”

Answer:  Automatic Aid agreements are formal contracts signed by each participating agency or municipality.  Sierra Madre cannot require any agency to agree to automatic aid.  Historically, Sierra Madre was not a participating member in automatic aid for Fire because the City relied on the services of a volunteer fire force. 

As Sierra Madre continues to transition to a career department, with fully paid staff, and all full-time positions on the Fire engine, the discussion of participating in automatic aid becomes more realistic.  However, because the agreements are signed voluntarily, there is no guarantee that changes to staffing, training, or equipment, or any other changes, will lead to Sierra Madre being included in automatic aid. 

The goal of this Council remains to become a participating agency in automatic aid, which is critical for the safety of the residents.  This is the primary reason the City is exploring all options which may be available.

Comment: “We already have mutual aid which is good enough” or “We already have automatic aid, we don’t need to participate in Verdugo’s system.”

Answer: The City does not have any signed mutual aid agreements.  When agencies in the Verdugo system respond to fires, or other calls for service in Sierra Madre, they do so voluntarily. These cities could decline to respond to our emergencies or they could respond to the emergencies and then provide a bill for their services.  Fires, or other emergency situations, which require a multi-agency response, similar to the fire on Mt. Wilson trail last year, quickly achieve reimbursable costs in the range of millions of dollars.  Without signed mutual or automatic aid agreements Sierra Madre is vulnerable both from a public safety response and liability standpoint.   Automatic aid makes Sierra Madre residents safer in an emergency; both in public safety response and in reducing liability.

The City has automatic aid agreements with the Angeles National Forest (ANF) and the County, which responds from the station on New York Ave. in Altadena.  The City appreciates the support of our partner agencies, while also recognizing the automatic aid agreements currently signed are not similar in the scope, nature, response time, or personnel and fleet commitments, as the automatic aid agreements in the Verdugo system.  In other words, the current agreements would not provide the resources that Sierra Madre would comparatively receive if we were members of automatic aid.

Comment: “Why do this now if SMFD will be fully staffed soon?”


Answer: Even with full staffing there is no guarantee of being included in automatic aid.  The City Council must explore any and all options available to be a full participating member of automatic aid in the Verdugo system. Moving down parallel paths give Sierra Madre the greatest chance to participate in automatic aid.  If Sierra Madre is accepted into automatic aid when the Fire Department is fully staffed, there would not be a reason to pursue any Fire response agreement with a peer agency.  However, if we don’t explore all options which have presented themselves, and the City is again denied access to automatic aid, residents will remain vulnerable for the reasons discussed above.

 

Comment: “What should I do?”

Answer:  Please continue to respectfully voice your opinions, thoughts, and ideas, and contact me directly with any questions, comments, or concerns you may have (GEngeland@CityofSierraMadre.com).  Also, please recognize there is room for everyone to express their opinions on this topic and it is okay if everyone doesn’t agree.    

Most importantly, remember that everyone should continue to support and appreciate the hard working men and women in the Sierra Madre Fire Department  and encourage our four applicants to do well on their Engineer’s exam this month.  As was stated above, once the final two Engineers are hired the City will have staffing which is comparable to our peer agencies and partners in the Verdugo system.  When the transition is complete we will again ask to be included in automatic aid.