Placentia to create its own fire department and withdraw from the Orange County Fire Authority
Placentia will do something no other Orange County city has done: leave the Orange County Fire Authority and build its own system for fire and emergency medical services.
The decision came after a packed, hours-long City Council meeting that lasted into Wednesday morning. Officials chose to form their own city fire department and hire the private Lynch Ambulance to handle 911 medical calls, a controversial decision that some critics said risks the health and safety of the community.
But council members said they believe the city’s plan will provide first-rate service to the community and offer more local control over costs, which was one of the main concerns with the contract with the fire authority.
“This has nothing to do with service, the quality of service or the personnel” at OCFA, Councilman Craig Green said. “This is purely a fiscal matter.”
Mayor Rhonda Shader said she chose to look at options beyond the current OCFA contract because otherwise, the city would have been locked in until 2030.
Shader and her colleagues said repeatedly that they don’t take decisions about the community’s safety lightly.
“If my husband has a heart attack, I’m going to rely on whatever decision I make tonight too,” Shader said.
Placentia has contracted with the fire authority – which serves 23 cities in the county – for more than two decades.
After months of research and a request for bids for firefighting and EMS services, City Administrator Damien Arrula proposed that the city form its own agency to handle firefighting and related services, and hire Lynch Ambulance to respond to medical emergencies and take patients to the hospital.
Early Wednesday, the council voted 3-1 to follow Arrula’s recommendation, with Councilman Jeremy Yamaguchi opposed and Councilman Chad Wanke absent.
A report to the council projected the first year of a new Placentia Fire and Life Safety Department and EMS services from Lynch would cost the city $6.1 million, compared with $7.1 million to stay with OCFA – and Arrula forecast that potential savings could grow to more than $28 million over the next 10 years.
Some speakers at the meeting praised the service provided by the Orange County Fire Authority, but others said they understand and supported looking at other options, considering that regular increases to how much the city pays the authority have far outpaced the growth of Placentia’s overall budget.
Opponents of the proposal, including OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy, criticized the proposed use of some reserve firefighters, and that Lynch has never provided 911 service to a city before.
“These are professionals. They know what they’re doing. They’ve got all the resources they need,” resident Blake Montero said of OCFA.
In a letter posted on its website, the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association – which represents OCFA firefighters – called the city’s plan “a reckless gamble” that would give residents lower-quality service.
But others said they’ve watched the city cut other public services and the Police Department shrink while bills for fire protection consume more of the budget.
The council was elected not just to ensure public safety, but to be responsible with taxpayers’ money, resident Dennis Blake said.
“That means you have to look out and see what’s the best thing for the city,” he said. “That’s what you’re doing.”
Arrula has said it would take nine months to a year to get the new department up and running. Under the OCFA contract, the official break will happen July 1, 2020.
“The city will be undertaking the decisive steps necessary to ensure a seamless transition,” Councilman Ward Smith, who is also a former chief of police for Placentia, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to serve and keep the community informed as we improve these essential life-saving services for our residents.”
The city owns the two fire stations within its boundaries that OCFA operates from now, but will have to purchase equipment and hire staff.
Because Placentia operates its own police department, it already has 911 dispatchers, so they can handle fire and medical calls rather than transferring them to the fire authority.
“The city views public safety as a whole. To that end, this local fire service model will allow for evengreater collaboration with our Police Department and 911 Communications Center,” Police Chief Darin Lenyi said in a statement. “It will also allow the city to re-invest in its own local Placentia Police Department and streamline the receiving and dispatching of emergency resources to the community.”