Calif. cities to end shared fire leadership, say challenges outweigh savings

The joint fire leadership agreement for the cities of Brea and Fullerton was in place for more than a decade


Tess Sheets
The Orange County Register

BREA, Calif. — After a decade of sharing a fire chief and command staff to save some money, the Fullerton and Brea departments will split this summer.

It “just made sense to go our way,” Brea Mayor Cecilia Hupp said, citing challenges with hiring under the shared command structure and uncertainty over Fullerton’s future in the partnership, since officials there are exploring joining the regional Orange County Fire Authority.

The Brea City Council approved the separation plan last month. Fullerton city leaders reached the same conclusion on Tuesday.
The Brea City Council approved the separation plan last month. Fullerton city leaders reached the same conclusion on Tuesday. (Photo/Fullerton Fire Department)

The city’s firefighters are “fully on board,” Hupp said. “They’re really looking forward to being a Brea-only fire department.”

The Brea City Council approved the separation plan last month, after a consultant reviewing its Fire Department said a split would be fairly easy to carry out and not costly. Fullerton city leaders on Tuesday, April 5, also approved ending the agreement June 30.

The support on the Fullerton City Council was narrow, with Bruce Whitaker and Nick Dunlap saying they wanted to maintain the partnership for at least another six months, abiding by the language of the agreement, which says either city must provide no less than six months notice before ending the accord.

Since 2011, the two fire departments have operated as separate agencies, but with a shared management staff, including a joint fire chief, deputy chiefs and battalion chiefs. At the time of the original merger, the cost savings were expected to be $463,000 annually in Fullerton and $881,000 in Brea.

The current fire chief over both agencies, Adam Loeser, said the partnership has consistently been reviewed for possible improvements, and “over the last couple of years, there has been some discussions from the city of Brea about standing up their own command staff and their own fire department,” he said.

Savings have been a chief benefit of the arrangement, Loeser said, but he noted the challenges of operating two distinct departments under joint leadership. Recruiting top positions proved challenging in some cases, staffers said, as well as managing the two separate agencies “in terms of processes, policies and procedures, aside from the distinct cultures of the Fullerton and Brea line-level staff.”

Compounding issues with recruitment has been the inability of the agencies to merge entirely into one department, a staff report said, which was an option considered at one point. City leaders once envisioned creating a joint powers authority that would combine the staffs of both agencies, and potentially other fire departments from bordering cities, to form a singular north Orange County department.

An evaluation of that idea “was presented at both city councils, both city councils received and filed those reports, but essentially didn’t take any action to move forward with that,” Loeser said.

A joint powers authority, which allows Fullerton and Brea to share general services, such as tree trimming, street sweeping or fire departments, has been the mechanism under which the share command staff operates.

That JPA will remain in place despite the fire departments’ split, Loeser said, providing a way for the cities to still partner together for other services in the future.

Hupp said the cost savings of the joint command staff were no longer as impactful in the city as they once were. Brea has been doing “very well financially in the last few years,” she said, “and we’re growing.”

“It was important to look out for the best interest of Brea,” she said,”and we determined that the best interest would be to have our own command staff back.”

When the agencies separate, Loeser said, “I think this will add a level of stability to both.”

Fullerton Mayor Fred Jung said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that the original agreement “had some merit and value,” but that it has “run its course.”

“I’m not a fan of keeping the Band-Aid on when you should pull it,” he said.

But the split will mean added costs to city budgets. In Brea, officials anticipate ending the agreement will result in an ongoing annual cost of roughly $765,000. That amount can be offset, they said, by increased revenues in the city and money-saving efforts such as repurposing funds budgeted for positions that have remained vacant.

In Fullerton, officials are studying now how a standalone agency would impact its budget, Loeser said.

Come July 1, Loeser will stick with Brea as the chief of its fire department, and promotions to fill two battalion chief positions will take place immediately, he said. Fullerton will promote or hire a permanent or interim chief, and look to fill some chief officer rank positions.

 

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