Peninsula News

San Carlos decides not to outsource fire department

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A controversial plan to privatize the fire department in one peninsula city is being met with protest. It was standing room only in San Carlos on Monday night and the meeting was extended until midnight.

The San Carlos City Council voted unanimously against outsourcing their fire department, despite the potential for bigger savings.

It's become the hot topic of San Carlos -- who gets to run the fire department. The fact that the City Council considered outsourcing led to a packed house and the excess crowd spilled out into the hallways.

"I think it's important to keep our public agencies public. What's our next step? Blackwater for police services? Halliburton to handle our public works?" said San Carlos resident Chris Dennebaum.

But outsourcing fire services to a private company had the potential to save the city of San Carlos up to $3 million. The other viable option was to team up with Redwood City, but that would save only $1.7 million.

Florida-based Wackenhut Services Inc. was the private company being considered. They said they could offer more in savings because its scheduling and retirement system is more efficient and less expensive. Wackenhut vice president Rick Tye said the plan involved hiring as many San Carlos firefighters as possible.

"When you're a contract provider, you audition everyday for your continued job. So quality of service is job number one, so it's very, very important to the community and it's very important to us," said Tye.

In addition to bigger savings, city staffers thought outsourcing could also lead to more services.

"They will help seniors put up smoke detectors. They will educate the kids. They will do a lot of things that aren't common in this county," said Assistant City Administrator Brian Moura.

Wackenhut already provides fire service to the federal government -- including NASA and the Department of Energy. But it has little experience with municipalities which is why the union that represents San Carlos firefighters opposed outsourcing.

"They're a for-profit company and they're accountable to their shareholders. Not necessarily accountable to the citizens of San Carlos," said San Mateo County Fire Fighters Union president Ed Hawkins.

Many San Carlos residents said it is a gamble they're not willing to take.

"What happens if they fail? Will any of you guarantee that they can save my house in a fire?" asked San Carlos resident Joe Caprioni.

The city decided to team up with Redwood City, but if those negotiations fail, then outsourcing could be brought back to the table.

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