ENCINITAS — Encinitas’ fire chief has signaled that he will ask the City Council for three more firefighters at the city’s newest fire station in Olivenhain during the upcoming budget discussions.
The request emerged during a discussion at the Feb. 25 meeting in regards to Fire Chief Mike Daigle’s request to apply for a federal grant that would offset the costs of three full-time firefighters at the station, which currently is staffed with three full-time firefighters and three others working overtime shifts.
The three new employees would replace the overtime employees at the station, located at the corner of Rancho Santa Fe and Lone Jack roads.
“The system we have out there is not perfect,” Daigle said. “I would hope that this could get us away from the OT.”
The council voted 4-1 to allow Daigle to apply for the grant, but questions emerged about whether the city could afford three new full-time positions, which, according to Daigle’s initial estimates, would cost $453,000 in year one and $522,000 by year two.
If the city received the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or, SAFER grant, it would cover 80 percent of the costs the first two years, and potentially a third if the firefighters hired were veterans.
Beyond that, however, the city would have to cover the costs.
“To me, this is like an introductory rate on a new credit card. It’s cheap for a two year honeymoon, but afterward the additional firefighters cost the city over half a million dollars every year,” said Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who voted against the grant application. “The first question is whether we need these to be full-time positions in our city. If we do, then we should look for a grant to cover as much as possible.”
The Olivenhain fire station opened in 2013 to cut down response times in the community where the closest fire station used to be in Village Park. Initially, the city staffed it with three-man crews on overtime because it was cheaper to pay overtime than to hire new crews.
More recently, however, the city council authorized three full-time positions for the station in addition to the three overtime positions, which allowed the station to stay open 24 hours.
Daigle said while he understands the concerns, the current system is also unsustainable because of the added work hours for the firefighters asked to staff the station.
“There’s definitely the possibility of fire fighter fatigue and burnout when you have guys consistently working overtime,” Daigle said. “It puts a strain on folks after a time.”
Additionally, he said, the gap between what the city pays in overtime compared to what it costs to hire a new firefighter has shrunk due to pension reform, which has reduced the city’s pension obligations.
Blakespear, in her dissent, said she had hoped to see a comparison of those costs before making any decisions about staffing, but didn’t have one before the vote. With further figures, she said, she could warm up to the proposal.
Meanwhile, Daigle said the city’s chances of getting the federal grant are slim, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency gives preference to agencies applying to backfill positions lost through budget cuts or to head off potential budgetary casualties.
Encinitas’ application would fall in the third category of applicants, those agencies looking to augment their workforce, and only 6 to 8 percent of the agencies awarded grants last year fell into that category.
“I am not sure how successful we will be, but it’s worth it to try,” Daigle said. “If our application is accepted, we will return to the council for acceptance of the grant and a lot more details on the costs associated with it moving forward.”