Fire stations throughout Oakland are shutting down for days at a time in response to a cost saving measure that came out of City Hall last year.
The rotating shutdown, also called a brownout, means Oakland’s 29 fire stations must close their doors one at a time for three days every six weeks. The brownout has been going on since June of 2012 and originally included two rotating schedules, meaning that two fire stations would close down at the same time.
Over a year later and well into the fall fire season, fire stations are still taking turns closing their doors for 72-hour intervals. The brownouts were originally expected to last just one year. But despite a federal grant that enabled the city to have fewer brownouts, they are now expected to last until July of 2014.
“It’s not ideal. The alternative would have been to close some fire stations permanently in order to relieve the general fund,” said Mark Hoffman, Oakland Fire Department’s Chief of Operations.
During peak fire season, the fire department will change its closure schedule to avoid closing stations in fire-prone areas on high-risk days. Residents living in the Oakland Hills, an area that was ravaged by a deadly firestorm in 1991 that took 25 lives and burned 1,520 acres, may still see a delay in response times when their local station is closed.
“Time is of the essence in the hills. It’s a crucial piece in the line of defense, having these stations open,” said Sandra Nichols, an Oakland Hills resident whose house narrowly survived the ’91 firestorm. “When something takes off in this high-risk season, it doesn’t take much. A little spark and it can get out of control really fast,” said Nichols.
City Hall voted to implement the temporary shutdowns back in January of 2009, but that round of shutdowns ended a year later, according to Coy Justice, Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief.
The brownouts were the result of negotiations between City Hall and the firefighters’ union, the International Association of Firefighters Local 55.
Firefighters do not go unpaid during the 3-day closures. Instead, they are sent to work at other understaffed stations when their home station is closed.
In December of 2012, the city received $7.8 million from the federal government to hire 24 additional firefighters. The fire department is currently in the hiring process for those positions.
Other California cities, from Sacramento to San Diego, have also implemented periodic rolling brownouts at fire stations in order to save money. So have cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Lexington, Kentucky.