Publication Date: Friday, May 16, 2003
Fighting to keep HazMat
Fighting to keep HazMat
(May 16, 2003) City debates cutting fire program
By Candice Shih
Chemical spills and other leaks of hazardous materials don't happen very often in Mountain View, but the chance that they will has firefighters and some residents and businesses asking the city council to save the fire department's hazardous materials program.
The council is considering ending the HazMat program, as it's known, to save money during a fiscal crisis. City staff has recommended reductions of $5.6 million from a $73 million budget. Starting to reduce HazMat next year would save $60,000 in overtime pay and training, but replacing its main vehicle, which is outdated, would cost $400,000 to $500,000.
The HazMat program is on the block because it doesn't get very many calls and is expensive to maintain. Over the past 11 years, it has responded to an average of 18 incidents per year. But over that time, the number of toxic gas facilities and hardware manufacturers, the most likely violators, has declined.
The greatest risks remaining, according to the city staff, are highway spills, which are rare and are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Department of Transportation. Any other incidents in Mountain View requiring a hazardous materials team could be handled by the county fire department or through mutual aid from other cities.
"Clearly, it's always difficult to make reductions in public safety. These are high priority service areas for the city," said City Manager Kevin Duggan.
If the recommended budget is passed next month, the fire department will have been cut 3.5 percent and the police department 2.1 percent over a two-year period. The rest of the city departments will take bigger hits, with the city clerk's office hurt the most by a 27 percent cut.
"Staff really prioritized the core services," said Council member Rosemary Stasek.
However, that 3.5 percent represents $458,000, and the reduction of a deputy fire marshal position in addition to HazMat.
"We are sympathetic to every department (but) at what point do you decide what is most needed for citizens for their survivability?" said John Miguel, president of the firefighters' union.
Even if the fire department as a whole is not facing major cuts, firefighters and other locals have agreed that the HazMat program is worth saving, especially in light of terrorist threats.
Responding to acts of terrorism is not something Miguel, a 21-year veteran of the fire department, said he expected to do, but he is dismayed that if he has to, his department will have a harder time doing so without HazMat training. Furthermore, sending firefighters into that kind of situation without that knowledge could endanger their lives, he added.
But Fire Chief Marc Revere said terrorism is best dealt with on a regional level. Also, it's better to have firefighters who are experienced in dealing with hazardous materials calls than those see just a few per year, as in Mountain View.
Stasek said that if the program is so important to firefighters, they need to find another area in their department to cut from.
According to Miguel, the firefighters have suggested altering and reducing middle management positions in order to keep HazMat and a deputy fire marshal position.
Council member Matt Neely agreed that some other solution needs to be devised, and suggested raising fees from businesses that have hazardous materials permits.
Businesses are currently being made aware of the potential loss of the HazMat program. Two, SGI and Alza, have expressed concerns, and the Chamber of Commerce is discussing whether to take a position on the issue.
"To eliminate the hazardous materials program would likely increase response times, and SGI felt that it was a big risk to take," said Julie Kreger King, SGI's environmental, health and safety manager.
Given SGI's location in the North Bayshore area where other companies may have hazardous materials, its sprawling campus and 1,200 employees could be vulnerable to toxic releases.
SGI has not had any incidents of hazardous materials in its history, but as Kreger King added, "It's nice to know that if there's something beyond our ability, the city is there to back us up."
Council member Nick Galiotto said he would not support the proposal to phase out the HazMat program, and suggested looking at federal grants for funding. Revere said it's not likely to happen because the grants that Mountain View is eligible for cannot be used for personnel costs.
Galiotto said he wants to keep the program because, like Kreger King, he is skeptical that county services would be adequate to respond quickly to calls in Mountain View.
But the statewide mutual aid system between public safety agencies is designed to support cities which don't have a needed resource, said Eric Lamoureux, spokesperson for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
"We've demonstrated it time and time again, the ability for cities and counties to support one another. I think residents in California can be assured that there are sufficient resources throughout the state," he added.
E-mail Candice Shih at email@example.com