Firefighters concerned over job cuts pending decision by Santa Clara County supervisors

Amanda del Castillo Image
Tuesday, October 6, 2020
Firefighters concerned over job cuts pending decision by Santa Clara Co. supervisors
Dozens of South Bay firefighters said their jobs are on the line pending a decision by Santa Clara County supervisors over fire district consolidation.

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- As wildfires continue to rage across the state, dozens of South Bay firefighters are dealing with added stress. Many said their jobs are on the line, pending a decision by Santa Clara County supervisors over who is in charge, whether fire district consolidation is needed, and more to be discussed on Tuesday. Now, there's a push to get the issues off the meeting agenda.

"I haven't felt so stressed in my life. It's unbelievable," John Byrne, Chapter Director at CAL FIRE Local 2881 said.

He explained action expected by supervisors could leave dozens of area firefighters fighting to keep their jobs.

On the agenda are potential changes to the Governing Board of two separate South Bay fire districts- Byrne's South Santa Clara County Fire Protection District called South County and the Los Altos Hills County Fire District.

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"If there's an annexation of our area and the dissolution of our fire board, what it ends up doing is it voids our contract the way we have it placed in the South County," Byrne explained.

County Supervisor Dave Cortese said that recent audits of both fire districts uncovered some financial mismanagement and more within Los Altos Hills.

"Those audits were fine for South County, but for Los Altos Hills, not so good," Supervisor Cortese told ABC7 News.

For that reason, Cortese said he's requesting South County be dropped from Tuesday's discussion.

"Just today, I requested that the South County consolidation issue be taken off the agenda," he said. "What was on the agenda tomorrow was simply to eliminate the commission that oversees those firefighters in South County and replaced those commissioners with the Board of Supervisors."

He continued, "None of this is directed at or intended to impact, or negatively affect anybody's job. It's just a big discussion about who's in charge at the top. And of course, the Board of Supervisors finds itself right in the middle of that."

Still, Byrne fears the remaining four supervisors may feel differently, deciding on a change that would void their contracts.

"With three board member votes, we can lose our contract," Byrne added.

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He maintained potential changes could bring more challenges to those on the fiery front lines. Specifically, people who have dedicated their days to fighting the massive wildfires that continue to torch California.

"We would like a 'Thank you' at this time," Byrne told ABC7 News. "Not to talk about the annexation of the fire district or this dissolution of the board."

Byrne explained 32 firefighters, two dispatchers, two office staff members, and one mechanic stand to be impacted.

"It's a scary thing to think about," he added. "And that anxiety definitely kind of takes us away from focusing on our job at hand, which is fighting fire right now."

"I have not gotten a good night's sleep in the last six nights, once I heard about what was going on," Byrne shared. "The fatigue is setting in for our folks. I can tell you that it's setting in for me. This definitely has added a lot of stress to my day, all of our members' days... every phone call that we're having."

He said any changes could also cause fire protection costs to skyrocket, "If we end up losing this contract and we see a breach in our departments no longer willing to move forward with any agreements if it's broken."

Regarding Tuesday's meeting, Supervisor Cortese shared, "Really, nobody should be doing any of this unless we think somehow it's going to improve fire safety."

"One of the things we've heard over and over again, from constituents, from folks- especially who live in the Foothills area around the valley, is maybe we need a unified approach," he continued, referring to the subject of consolidation.

Still, he understands there is plenty of confusion surrounding the issues at hand.

"If there's that much confusion and there's that much concern, and there's that much fear at a time when we've had hundreds of fires burning all over the state," Cortese explained. "Sometimes it's good just to call a timeout. Let everyone take a deep breath and say, 'Let's make sure we know what we're discussing. The fear factor should not be that great.'"

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Cortese also admitted, "I have no qualms about acknowledging the fact that this has been less than clear for people- what the Board of Supervisors wants to look at here."

Several items on Tuesday's agenda surround potential changes that would impact both fire districts. Text from the Board of Supervisors' Agenda Packet posted publicly show exactly what is up for discussion and debate.

For the full Agenda Packet, click here.

"Firefighters, we train for what we do. We get very good at what we do. But when you start talking about losing our jobs or changing of our contracts, or the dissolution of our fire board that we have such a great relationship with- you kind of wonder what's pushing these things," Byrne told ABC7 News.

Cortese added, "They're real professionals. They deserve to be acknowledged and respected, and we'll try to make sure that comes out of our meeting."

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