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Fire department to merge with Monterey's


Published: September 16, 2011

AFTER NEARLY a decade of discussing and debating the most cost-effective way to run its fire department, the Carmel City Council voted Tuesday to merge the agency with Monterey’s, as recommended by interim city administrator John Goss.

After the merger, the city will still have an engine and three firefighters in the station 24/7, and will continue to own the Sixth Avenue firehouse and equipment, but the firefighters and officers will become employees of the City of Monterey.

During Tuesday’s debate on what would be the end of Carmel’s stand-alone fire department, which has existed since the early 1900s, a crowd of firefighters from Carmel and Monterey were in attendance to show their support.

In a report presented Sept. 13, Goss evaluated the possibilities of continuing the stand-alone department; a “headquarters” option, in which Monterey or Cal Fire would provide upper management but not frontline forces; forming a regional fire department; or hiring Monterey or Cal Fire to take over CFD. He told the council a stand-alone department would be too expensive, Monterey has no interest in continuing the headquarters option it is providing now, and the effort toward a regional agency has floundered.

Since Carmel has been working with Monterey for the past few years and the two departments are already well integrated in training, emergency response and other aspects of public safety, Goss suggested the city fully merge its department with MFD.

Engineer Ken Hutchinson, vice president of the Carmel firefighters union, said Goss’ proposal “is the best possible solution … to the decade-long challenge that Carmel has had to providing permanent, professional, sustainable fire service.”

Paramedic David Jedinak, who manages the city’s ambulance, also supported the merger.

“How we worked together only got better with guidance and assistance from the City of Carmel and the City of Monterey,” he said. “We’ve moved forward and elevated our ambulance service to the best it’s ever been.”

Former councilman Gerard Rose agreed contracting with Monterey would be the best solution.

“It’s been a long engagement,” resident Pat Sippel commented, “and it’s time to marry,”

‘Don’t give it away’

Several residents wanted the city to maintain a headquarters model with either Monterey or Cal Fire, or scrap the whole process and start over. Carmel Residents Association member Roberta Miller said Goss’ report lacked “sensitivity to our sense of community.”

“Our own fire and ambulance is one of the things that makes Carmel unique,” she said. “I believe Carmel’s next step has to be a step back, to the beginning.”

Resident Carolyn Hardy said merging with Monterey would be akin to giving away the fire department, and resident David Banks said the cost savings would not justify relinquishing the ability to make important decisions about public safety. “If you decide to merge with Monterey, you’ll forfeit forever Carmel’s control over fire protection,” he said.

Pacific Grove city manager Tom Frutchey said some residents of his city expressed similar concerns when Monterey absorbed PGFD in 2008, but their fears never came to fruition. “When Monterey and P.G. first merged the fire services, there was a lot of fear of the loss of control and community,” he said. “And I’m here tonight to let you know none of those were founded.”

Councilman Ken Talmage wanted to develop a solution that focused more on responding to the city’s abundance of medical emergencies than its average of two dozen fire calls per year, but Monterey Fire Chief Andrew Miller said continuing to provide top-shelf ambulance service in Carmel is already part of the plan.

“We’re all in this together,” he said. “The proposal John Goss brings you tonight is the most logical proposal. There are no questions of trust; it’s not that we’re not going to be able to perform. Monterey has contributed so much to the City of Carmel. People don’t even realize it.”

Mayor Sue McCloud said merging with Monterey would be the best way to accomplish what people have said they want: firefighters who know the city’s idiosyncrasies — including how to navigate streets with no house numbers — and quick response times.

“I urge council to think long and hard, and let’s make a decision to give direction to staff tonight to negotiate with whomever — the devil, if necessary — and bring back a solution,” she said.

Councilwoman Paula Hazdovac made a motion to get to work on drafting an agreement with Monterey for the fire-department merger, though Talmage said he wanted to further define how to go about accomplishing that goal, and councilman Jason Burnett said he wasn’t ready to commit without better articulating what the council wants in the agreement.

The motion passed unanimously, with McCloud, Hazdovac and councilwoman Karen Sharp voting in favor. Talmage and Burnett abstained in a symbolic protest of the decision-making process.

“I don’t think we’ve clearly articulated what we want in that agreement, and I don’t think the process has been managed correctly,” Burnett said.