The LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Measure FD to appear on the March 3 ballot
MOST would agree that firefighters are arguably the most crucial public service members of any community in terms of public safety, emergency services and disaster relief.
In Los Angeles County, where earthquakes and wildfires happen on a nearly regular basis, firefighters and paramedics are an essential part of mitigating disaster and rescuing victims.
But, for the most part, a majority of the responsibilities of a fire department lie in everyday emergencies — sudden medical crises that require immediate paramedic assistance, building and home fires and car accidents to name a few — that require swift help from neighborhood paramedics and firefighters.
The LA County Fire Department (LA County Fire) is the fourth busiest fire department in the United States, just behind the New York City Fire Department, Chicago Fire Department and the LA City Fire Department. Throughout the year of 2017, it received just under 400,000 emergency calls.
And the high demand for its services makes sense: LA County Fire is responsible for more than 4 million residents, and its district covers 1.2 million homes over an area of 2,305 square miles.
But the department says it needs more funding in order to keep up with “the current demand and increased need for our services.”
That’s why on March 3, voters in LA County will be voting on Measure FD, a local parcel tax measure that collects 6 cents per square foot for homes and buildings to be funneled into bolstering the county’s fire department.
Voters in Los Angeles County haven’t approved any increased funding through property taxes for LA County Fire since 2000, meaning that paramedics and firefighters have been relying on contracts and existing property tax revenue.
Currently, LA County Fire does not have access to the county’s General Fund or those of the 47 cities within its jurisdiction that pay for fire protection services through property tax revenues. LA County Fire’s current annual budget is $1.15 billion (as of 2017), which isn’t enough in aiding the community on dwindling resources and not enough staff on deck, according to the LA County Fire Chief Daryl Osby.
“We’ve done all we could to professionally provide the best services that we can,” Osby said at a press briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services at the LA County Fire Department HQ on Friday, January 24. “But over the last decade, our resources are almost up, and our staff — including our paramedics — are down 25%. That’s almost unsustainable.”
Currently, the county fire department is funded primarily through property tax revenue and contracts with 11 of the 58 cities it services. But LA County Fire says is not enough to meet “the current demand and increased need for services.”
If passed, Measure FD would impose a tax of 6 cents per square foot of improved properties, which include commercial buildings and homes. Senior citizens, non-profit organizations, and government buildings would be exempt and the tax would be capped at 100,000 square feet.
For example, the average homeowner with a 1,500 square foot home would pay $90 a year, which also adds up to 25 cents per day, LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn said.
Square footage of improvements used for parking would be excluded, and the tax would be limited to 2% inflation adjustments.
All in all, this parcel tax is expected to generate about $134 million a year.
The money generated from the tax would be allocated to three main priorities detailed by Fire Chief Osby: increase the number of on-duty firefighters and paramedics, upgrade outdated communication technology to minimize emergency response time, and replace old fire engines and equipment and emergency tools, like the jaws of life.
“This department is a lot different than it was 20 years ago,” Osby explained. “In addition to the increased call volume, we’re larger. The population is more diverse now and we’ve got an aging baby boomer population. We serve 59 cities in this district and all the unincorporated areas of the county of Los Angeles.”
What will Measure FD be used on, specifically?
Operating a first-class fire department, especially one as big as LA County Fire, requires ample on-duty staff of firefighters and paramedics to accommodate a “growing” LA County population. (According to Census Bureau data, there are more than 10 million residents in the county as of 2017, a steady increase from 2000 which had 9.8 residents.)
And because there’s been a spike in the population, from 2008 to 2018, there has been a 50% increase in “emergency medical incidents” but there has been less than a 5% increase in the number of paramedic squads available. One of the top priorities of Measure FD is to hire more firefighters and paramedics
“Right now we have 18 units in our department that respond to over 6,000 calls a day, so when you do the math, basically when you get to work for a 24-hour shift, you’re gone out on calls 24/7,” Osby said.
In addition to addressing the staff shortages, Osby said that he would like to have enough staff on deck at any given time so that firefighters and paramedics aren’t “forced to come back against their will” in order to fill staff shortages as the demand for emergency services increases.
“You can see the impact of an increased call volume coupled with the fact that we force our already busy firefighters and paramedics which underscores our need to hire firefighters and paramedics,” Osby said, adding that it would allow the firefighters and paramedics to take care of themselves because “in my perspective, my number one objective is their safety and welfare so they can address your safety and welfare.”
The funds would also be used to acquire new equipment used to, quite literally, save lives like defibrillators, breathing devices and the jaws of life, which are routinely used to save victims stuck under debris in wildfires and car accidents.
Additionally, as the area wildfires become more sudden and destructive, the funds would be invested into thermal image cameras used to locate victims as well as protective gear to allow firefighters to brave through these intense blazes.
According to Osby, about a third of the fire engines are older than 20 years and funding from Measure FD would also be used to replace those and the “critical equipment” within each fire engine.
As far as information technology goes, LA County Fire says that it also needs to update its communication systems by using real-time mapping software and other sophisticated technology to improve response times from 911 calls. Additionally, the department would improve communication systems to make it easier to directly reach emergency rooms and trauma centers to provide information when transporting patients.
“In our profession, seconds and minutes matter,” Osby said. “If you’re in an extreme situation, you know those seconds and minutes matter and we do all we can to make sure we accomplish that objective.”
As Los Angeles County, becomes more and more diverse, so does its linguistic landscape, and Osby told the Asian Journal that if Measure FD is passed, then funds will be allocated to “proper recruitment, tools and mechanisms” that’ll ensure that LA County Fire caters to the culturally-vast community.
“Making sure we serve the complex and diverse men and women of the community is something that is near and dear to me, and it’s been a mission of mine to make sure our department — our paramedics, our firefighters and all our staff — represent the diverse community we serve,” Osby added.
In order to be put into effect, however, voters must approve the measure. The measure requires approval from two-thirds of local voters.
“It’s really up to the voters to make the determination of what they want this department to look like and the kind of service that they feel is necessary to the community,” Osby said. “Again, it’s been over 20 years since voters have approved a parcel tax to fund the department, and we need to update and expand our department as [the] population itself expands and the need for our services become more frequent and abundant.”
To learn more about Measure FD, please visit wearelacountyfire.org, which also has a survey where residents may ask questions and share any experiences with paramedics, firefighters or other emergency services they’ve utilized in the past. (Klarize Medenilla/AJPress)