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Santa Monica Fire Department Concerns

For the majority of 2014 I have been working intimately with senior members of the Santa Monica Fire Department and the City Council in regards to addressing the rising concerns that we all have about fire suppression in the city. I am grateful to Zina Josephs and the Friends of Sunset Park for taking the time to address an issue that is key to our safety. This letter accurately reflects the systemic problems that we are facing with the entire SMFD. As a native of Santa Monica, many members of the Fire Department are life long friends of mine and the job they have done is incomparable. These brave men and women are willing to put their lives on the line for us everyday. However, these issues must be not be ignored as it involves the livelihood of every member of this community. Please take a moment to read this letter, I think you will find it very informative.


August 27, 2014

To:      City Manager Rod Gould

            Fire Chief Scott Ferguson

            Director of Human Resources Donna C. Peter

            Cc: City Council

From:  Board of Directors, Friends of Sunset Park (FOSP)

RE:       Santa Monica Fire Department concerns

The one thing that all of us probably have in common is our belief in the importance of the safety of our community. With that in mind, the FOSP Board of Directors has the following concerns and respectfully requests that the City Manager, Fire Chief and Director of Human Resources respond to these questions:

1. Seemingly inadequate Fire Department staff and equipment – Fire Department expenditures are about 10% of general fund expenditures in Santa Monica, compared to 18% for Berkeley and 20% for Santa Barbara. Does Santa Monica have adequate fire suppression personnel and equipment to protect our city? If so, why does SMFD have to request “mutual aid” from Los Angeles and Culver City? How often has that happened, per year, in the last five years? When the Expo Light Rail arrives in 2016, how will only two engine companies serve the   neighborhoods south of the rail line (Pico, Sunset Park, and Ocean Park)?

2. The recommendation to switch to “tiered dispatch” – Why are city officials considering going “back to the 80’s” with a tiered dispatch system that involves adding a 2-person rescue ambulance stationed at Montana Library, rather than staffing an existing 4-person fire engine with two paramedics and two  EMTs? When department data seem to show that survival rates are greater when a 4-person engine company responds, why reduce the level of services? According to the city’s own data, one third of the city’s population is over 50 years in age and the percentage of adults 65 and older will increase dramatically over the next 10 to 15 years. Is there a fiscal crisis that would seemingly require putting their lives at risk in this way?

3. Hiring and promotional practices involving the Fire Department and the Human Resources Department – Why was Terry Garrison, former Assistant Fire Chief in Phoenix, not even accorded an interview at the time Chief Ferguson was hired? Why does there seem to be a trend to hire from outside the department rather from promoting from within? Why was an evaluator (who was subsequently fired from his own department) allowed by Human Services to rate a well-educated, well-trained SMFD firefighter applying for promotion as “zero” in training and “zero” in education? What changes in the hiring/promotion processes have been instituted since then? Why are experienced, highly skilled SMFD staff, including a division chief, a captain, and the dispatch supervisor, leaving the department?

4. An investigation regarding age discrimination within the Fire Department – Why are well-trained, experienced firefighters seemingly passed over for promotion in favor of younger, less-educated, less experienced firefighters? When an independent investigator found that Fire Chief Scott Ferguson used ageist comments in a way that violated the Department’s Code of Conduct, what action did the City Manager take?

5. The possible downside of combining Police and Fire Dispatch – When the Fire Department’s own paramedic coordinator has expressed concern that “there is a real difference in dispatching EMS (Emergency Medical Service) calls and police calls,” why is this still being considered, and who will suffer as a result?

6. Failure to staff the specialized aircraft crash rig near Santa Monica Airport 24/7 – Jet traffic at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) is increasing again and will probably reach 18,000 landings and takeoffs in 2014, an average of 50 per day. The FAA estimates that jet traffic at general aviation airports like SMO will increase by about 5% per year between now and 2032, primarily due to the growth in the business jet fleet. The first jet crash at SMO occurred in September 2013, and it seems to be only a matter of time before the next one occurs. Why is the SMFD aircraft crash rig, which is specially designed to fight flammable liquid fires (jets carries thousands of gallons of kerosene-based fuel) not staffed full time?



1. Seemingly inadequate Fire Department staff and equipment

In 1972, there were approximately 1,800 calls for service to the Fire Department. The department had 5 engines and 1 ladder truck.

In 2013, there were approximately 13,000 calls for service to the Fire Department. The department apparently had 6 engines and 1 ladder truck.

Approximately 78% of emergency responses are medical in nature….All firefighters must possess EMT certification at the minimum.  Almost half of the firefighters are licensed as paramedics.”  All EMTs and paramedics are also firefighters, which allows the Fire Department to provide a full service response, whether it’s a medical emergency, fire, traffic collision, or any other emergency.   

During special events such as GLOW or the LA Marathon, and increasingly even when there aren’t special events, SMFD apparently has to call on LAFD and Culver City for “mutual aid.”

According to the City of Santa Monica, “More than 1/3 of Santa Monica residents are over the age of 50, and the percent of adults 65 and older will increase dramatically over the next 10 to 15 years.” This will inevitably result in an increase in the need for emergency medical services.

And when the Expo Light Rail starts bringing more people into the city on a daily basis in 2016 and tying up north-south traffic, there will apparently be only two engine companies to serve the neighborhoods south of the light rail, including the Pico neighborhood, Sunset Park, and Ocean Park. 

Interview with Fire Chief Scott Ferguson -- “Facing the future of fire” – 8/26/12 – Santa Monica Daily Press  -- “The department finds itself coping with new challenges like the coming Exposition Light Rail Line, which will create a barrier between the northern and southern portions of Santa Monica and bring thousands of newcomers to the city….we’ve got continuing construction.…it increases our response time….Our biggest concern right now is we don’t know what the impact of bifurcating our community will be….We do know that there will be a lot of people on the Santa Monica Pier….The pier is already overloaded.”

2. The recommendation to switch to “tiered dispatch”

“Santa Monica was the first fire department in the nation to deliver paramedic services via a fire engine company [in 1974]….The fire department sends paramedics on almost all medical calls to ensure the community has access to paramedic level care if needed. The dispatch center provides callers with Emergency Medical Dispatch, which includes pre-arrival instructions, including how to help a victim who is choking and how to do CPR.”

The Fire Chief, and perhaps the City Manager, seem to be contemplating moving the department to a “tiered dispatch” system and stationing a rescue ambulance (RA) with only 2 paramedics at Montana Library, rather than adding an engine company (staffed by 2 paramedics and 2 EMTs). The dispatcher will be expected to decide, given whatever information the caller provides, whether to send a 2-person Rescue Ambulance or a 4-person engine (which can handle any medical emergency). For example, if a caller reports that that a man who appears to be inebriated has collapsed, the dispatcher may send a 2-person Rescue Ambulance. But if it then it turns out that the man has had a stroke or heart attack, there will be a delay while the 4-person engine company responds, and the delay could have serious consequences.  

This seems to demonstrate a “Back to the 80’s” mentality, and it could possibly put lives at risk.  Recently an informal study, examining three years of data, seemed to indicate that victims requiring CPR had a much higher rate of survival (perhaps as much as 50%) when a 4-person fire engine responded to the call, compared to when a 2-person rescue ambulance responded. Perhaps this data should be further analyzed and verified.

Unless the city is facing a financial crisis, it does not seem necessary to reduce the Fire Department’s level of service in this way. This “tiered dispatch” system was seemingly recommended by the department’s Deployment Committee a couple months ago, but some firefighters on that committee say that they did not recommend this course of action.


According to a City of Santa Barbara -- Comparative Indicators Report, Fiscal Year 2012 Budgets document, fire expenditure as a percentage of general fund expense  in FY 2012 was 21% in Redondo Beach, 20.6% in Santa Barbara, 18% in Berkeley, and 10.8% in Santa Monica.

Background: Regarding types of calls for service, "basic life support" (BLS) means emergency first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation procedures, which include recognizing respiratory and cardiac arrest and starting the proper application of cardiopulmonary resuscitation to maintain life without invasive techniques until the victim may be transported, or until Advanced Life Support is available. EMTs, with about 300 hours of training, can provide BLS.

 "Advanced life support" (ALS) means special services designed to provide definitive pre-hospital emergency medical care, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation, cardiac monitoring, cardiac defibrillation, advanced airway management, intravenous therapy, administration of specified drugs and other medicinal preparations, and other techniques and procedures. This requires a paramedic with about 1,100 hours of training.  

In Santa Monica, fire engines staffed by 2 paramedics and 2 EMTs are currently dispatched immediately to ALS and BLS calls. ALS needs a minimum of 4 people. While providing care, they can call ahead to the hospital to provide information so that appropriate staff and equipment will be ready when the contract ambulance reaches the ER.

Even a BLS call may require 4 people. For example, in response to a call from a family member who had not been able to contact an elderly woman, an engine company ended up having to break into the woman’s home. She was upstairs, and it took 3 firefighters to carry her down the stairs, while the 4th firefighter calmed the patient and reassured her family members by phone that she was still alive. With the “tiered dispatch” system, if only 2 paramedics respond to a call, and then find out that they need more help, there will be a delay while the engine company suits up and drives to the site.

“Conducted studies that were published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine in 1989 and 1993 showed that for each minute that goes by, the mortality rate of a critically ill or injured person drops by about 10%. These studies have been validated subsequently by other studies and are especially true in a cardiac arrest.”

Deputy Fire Chief Tom Clemo apparently informed some Fire Department staff members in a   meeting that the citizens of Santa Monica need to get used to a lower level of service. If the city’s annual budget continues to be more than $500 million per year, why would we need to get used to a lower level of service in the public safety departments? 

3. Hiring and promotional practices involving the Fire Department and the Human Resources Department

      a. When Fire Chief Scott Ferguson was hired in March 2010, the appointment followed “a nationwide recruitment that attracted more than 67 candidates and interviews with 20 finalists.”  

Among the 47 applicants who weren’t granted interviews was Terry Garrison. Garrison is a former Assistant Chief of the Phoenix Fire Department and co-author of the workbook for Fire Command, “which is used by many major fire departments as it describes an orderly procedure for approaching a hazardous situation, from arriving and giving a cohesive description of the scene to breaking the incident into manageable pieces so it can be dealt with.” 

The author of Fire Command is Garrison’s former boss, Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini, 1997 Public Official of the Year.  

Only a few months later, although not afforded an interview in Santa Monica, Garrison was hired in September 2010 as Chief of the Houston Fire Department. His 30 years of experience in Phoenix had included fire/arson investigator, recruiting, public information, management, and training in emergency medical services, fire operations, and dispatch. After leaving Phoenix, he had served as Fire Chief in Oceanside, CA, a city of 187,000. Garrison had earned a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science Management from Ottawa University and a master’s in Educational Leadership from Northern Arizona University, had completed a Certified Public Manager Program at Arizona State University, and had attended Harvard’s JFK School of Government.

Meanwhile, the press release that announced the hiring of Chief Scott Ferguson in Santa Monica noted his past service in Manhattan Beach (a city of 35,000); Peoria, Arizona; and Vancouver, Washington; as well as a master’s degree in Management from Wayland Baptist University.

Why wasn’t Terry Garrison at least interviewed for the job?

      b. Deputy Fire Chief Tom Clemo, “is responsible for all operational aspects of the department, including the Suppression and Rescue Staff, the Training Division, and the Emergency Medical Services Division.”

He is supervising Battalion Chiefs and Paramedics even though he seems to have not had much experience as a Battalion Chief (serving rather as a Communications Manager), nor was he apparently ever a licensed paramedic. At the time he was hired in Santa Monica, he seems to have been working on an as-needed basis as an hourly employee for the Oregon State Marshals Office on Incident Management Teams (“Salary: Varies based on deployments - $50 hourly”). 

Clemo was hired in May 2012, and Chief Scott Ferguson noted in the press release that, “Tom has held nearly every rank in the fire service and has a proven record of performance, budget management, and leadership.”

It‘s not clear why Clemo was hired from outside the department, while applicants from within the department, who had served as paramedics and battalion chiefs were passed over.

One example is Division Chief Jose M. Torres, who has been with the department since 1997 and has also served as a Captain and Battalion Chief. He was commended for outstanding service, leadership, and performance during the 2003 Farmers Market incident, when 10 people were killed and 63 injured by an elderly driver. For three years, Torres served as a clinical instructor in the UCLA Medical School, Daniel Freeman Paramedic Training program, the first nationally accredited paramedic education program.

From 1990 to 1997, Torres was a Fire Engineer and Acting Captain in the City of Ventura Fire Department, and he was commended for outstanding service during the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest. Before that, he served in the U.S. Air Force and was Assistant Chief for Training at Vandenburg Air Force Base, managing the DOD fire training program for about 150 military and civilian firefighters, and helping to develop and implement disaster drills.

Torres recently placed in the top 5 for Fire Chief in Oxnard (pop. 200,000), and he is currently a finalist for Fire Rescue Authority Chief of Loveland, Colorado (pop. 70,000 and home to Hewlitt-Packard and Teledyne manufacturing facilities).

If the apparent pattern of hiring from outside the Santa Monica Fire Department rather than promoting from within continues, it seems possible that we will be losing more outstanding members of the department to other cities.  

      c. The other Deputy Fire Chief, Bruce Davis, apparently plans to retire later this year, so there will be a vacant position.  The department will have a choice between hiring from outside, as was done with Chief Ferguson and Deputy Chief Clemo, or promoting from within.

It seems that qualified and experienced SMFD firefighters who have applied for various promotions may have sometimes been passed over in favor of younger, less experienced employees. One candidate for promotion, who had passed the written exam; had 29 years of experience as a firefighter; had 27 years of experience as a licensed paramedic; had earned two college degrees (Public Fire Service and Fire Administration); had been a Fire Academy instructor; had been a clinical instructor for a paramedic training program connected with UCLA; had certification from the State of California as Firefighter 1, Firefighter 2, Fire Officer,  Incident Command, and Wildland Fire Behavior; had taken the National Fire Academy Course in Emergency Response to Terrorism; had been certified as an Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighter; and had training regarding Hazardous Materials, nevertheless failed the oral interview.

When he asked Human Resources why he had been passed over, the head of Human Resources informed him that one of the interviewers had marked a “zero” on training and a “zero” on education. This seems incomprehensible. (It appears that this interviewer, who had been promoted by Chief Ferguson to Battalion Chief in Manhattan Beach, may have been subsequently fired from his department.)

At the current time, the dispatch supervisor has left to work elsewhere, a division chief is seeking employment elsewhere, the SMFD systems analyst is on a leave of absence due to stress during one of the most important radio and computer upgrades in the department's history, and a highly respected senior captain, who is an integral part of the department, is being forced into retirement, apparently so he can be replaced by a civilian. As Fleet Maintenance Coordinator for many years, this captain’s knowledge of fire equipment is unsurpassed, it has apparently led to the department having the highest quality and the best maintained apparatus and equipment, it undoubtedly helped earn the SMFD a Class 1 rating by the Insurance Services Office in 2012 -- -- and, most importantly, it has increased the safety of firefighters, residents, workers, and visitors to Santa Monica. Many of the staff feel that replacing him with a civilian who has not had experience in fire suppression and emergency medical services is penny-wise and pound foolish, that it will ultimately waste money and, worst of all, that it may weaken the department and make the community less safe.   

4. An investigation regarding age discrimination within the Fire Department

After an age discrimination complaint was filed by Fire Department employees in 2013 regarding harassment, intimidation, and creation of a hostile work environment, an outside investigator was hired (an attorney from San Diego). Almost half of the fire suppression staff were interviewed by the investigator. However, when one of the staff members went in for an interview, Deputy Fire Chief Clemo was apparently in the room with the investigator.

The firefighters who filed the complaint later received letters from Human Services stating that the investigation had been completed and that their claims based on age were not sustained. The Human Services letter described the Fire Chief using the phrases “knuckle-draggers,” 40-to-50-year-old knuckle-draggers,” and “dead wood” to refer to employees “who are not on board with the Fire Chief’s philosophy and changes to the Department….The investigator did find that Fire Chief Scott Ferguson used ageist comments in private conversations or writings; while the comments did not appear frequent or pervasive, they do constitute a violation of the Department’s Code of Conduct, line 21. Based on the results of the investigation, the City will take the appropriate action as determined by the City Manager.” What action was taken?

(A former Los Angeles Fire Department union leader told the Santa Monica firefighters who filed the complaint that their case should have been a “slam dunk.”)

5. The possible downside of combining Police and Fire Dispatch

“Santa Monica Considers Overhaul of Emergency Dispatch System” – 8/26/13 – Santa Monica Lookout --

“ ‘There are concerns,’ said Michael McElvaney, paramedic coordinator for the SMFD, about the proposed consolidation. ‘One of the concerns is there is a real difference in dispatching EMS (Emergency Medical Service) calls and police calls,’ he said.

“Under the current system, all 911 calls go to a police dispatcher who determines whether the call needs to be directed to the fire department or if it's a police emergency. Fire or medical calls are then forwarded by the police dispatcher to the fire department dispatcher. Having divided dispatches allows the phone operators to have specialized training tailored to the particular types of emergencies each dispatch office fields, officials said.”

6. Failure to staff the specialized aircraft crash rig near Santa Monica Airport 24/7

In September 2013, a jet aircraft crashed into a hangar near the west end of the Santa Monica Airport (SMO) runway, across the alley from homes on Pier Avenue. A specialized piece of airport firefighting equipment called an aircraft crash rig is stationed at Fire Station 5 at 25th and Ashland, adjacent to SMO.

In addition to the aircraft crash rig, Fire Station 5 has one fire engine, staffed by two paramedics and two EMT’s, as most calls for service are medical emergencies rather than fires. Unfortunately, when Engine 5 is out on a paramedic or fire call, there is no one left at the Fire Station 5 to operate the aircraft crash rig.

 If the engine were to be out on a call, if and when another jet crash should occur, Fire Station 2 in Ocean Park is the back-up, with one firefighter trained to operate the airport crash rig. If that engine were also out on a call, any of the other 4 engines from more distant fire stations would probably go straight to the fire, without taking time to go get the aircraft trash rig.

The aircraft crash rig is currently “cross-staffed,” but it should be permanently staffed full time.

The city first purchased an aircraft crash rig at auction in 1989 for about $35,000 and refurbished it for $150,000. The need was considered absolute, in case a jet crashed into the neighborhood.  That equipment was replaced in 2001 with a newer repossessed rig from Grand Junction, Colorado for about $500,000. No federal funds were available to help pay for the aircraft crash rig because SMO is not an “indexed” Part 139 airport that requires specific Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting  equipment, i.e., it doesn’t have scheduled service, even though some of the executive jets flying in and out of SMO can carry up to 20 passengers.

The new rig can be driven to the fire and then operated by a single firefighter with special training to dispense firefighting foam to combat flammable liquid, including jet fuel (kerosene) and the leaded aviation gasoline (Avgas) used by the piston-powered propeller planes. The rig carries 1,500 gallons of water and 210 gallons of foam (which can be mixed), plus a dry chemical system. 

From the Denver International Airport website: -- At a crash, ARFF crews work in three groups:

  • Fire Attack for both exterior and interior suppression
  • Rescue to locate, extricate and remove victims
  • EMS which sets up an initial triage site within walking distance of the crash site in part to accommodate the walking wounded and to keep a running tally of the crew and passengers.

From the Los Angeles Fire Department website: Photo of LAFD aircraft crash rigs at Van Nuys Airport: -- “This is one of the very specialized apparatus stationed at airports in Los Angeles. Originally called "Crash Rigs," these fire engines are specifically designed to quickly suppress fire in the event of an aircraft accident. These examples are stationed at FS114 at Van Nuys Airport. Today, fire suppression apparatus are referred to as ARFF rigs, or Aircraft Rescue Firefighting apparatus. Before any LAFD members can join an ARFF company, they must successfully complete training in ARFF practices that meet OSFM and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1003, Standard for Airport Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications.”)

Jets flying in and out of Santa Monica Airport (SMO) can carry thousands of gallons of fuel. Jet traffic at SMO has increased from 1,176 landings and takeoffs in 1983 to 14,284 in 2013. The high was 18,575 operations in 2007, before the economic downturn, and indications are that jet traffic in 2014 may exceed that number. 

According to FAA Aerospace Forecast Fiscal Years 2012-2032 – Active General Aviation Aircraft: “Hours flown by turbine aircraft…are forecast to increase 3.6 percent yearly over the forecast period….Jet aircraft are forecast to account for most of the increase, with hours flown increasing at an average annual rate of 5.3 percent over the forecast period. The large increases in jet hours result mainly from the increasing size of the business jet fleet….”

Unfortunately, the Santa Monica Fire Department aircraft crash rig, specifically designed for   suppression of flammable liquid fires, is not staffed 24/7.  

The September 2013 jet crash occurred less than 500 feet from the west end of the SMO runway. The aircraft veered into a hangar directly across the alley from homes on Pier Avenue, and it was apparently still traveling about 40 mph when it crashed into the hangar.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) preliminary report on September 13, 2013 fatal jet crash at Santa Monica Airport:

NTSB Identification: WPR13FA430
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Sunday, September 29, 2013 in Santa Monica, CA
Aircraft: CESSNA 525A, registration: N194SJ
Injuries: 4 Fatal.


Conclusion – Again, the FOSP Board of Directors requests that the City Manager, Fire Chief and Director of Human Resources respond to questions stated at the beginning of this document.



City of Santa Barbara -- Comparative Indicators Report, Fiscal Year 2012 Budgets -- (Please see the attached chart for “Fire Expenditure as a % of General Fund Expense FY 2012” for a comparison of Santa Monica with other California cities of similar size.)



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