San Carlos weighs splitting fire crews into smaller teams 

A proposal to send firefighters to medical calls in smaller SUV-type vehicles rather than fire engines could help trim emergency services costs, but firefighters say response times to fires could suffer.

As part of a redesign of its fire service, San Carlos is considering a practice known as “cross-staffing,” in which two firefighters would respond to a medical emergency in a light rescue vehicle, leaving two others back at the station.

Under the existing model, which is used throughout San Mateo County, a team of three or four firefighters heads to medical calls on either an engine or ladder truck.

The potential shift in the way firefighters treat medical calls — which make up about 60 percent of all Peninsula fire department responses — could save the city long-term on staffing and replacement costs for expensive fire apparatus, according to a 2010 report from consultant TriData.

Cross-staffing would allow a station with four firefighters to handle two medical calls simultaneously, TriData says. Or, if a fire broke out while the first pair was away, the second team could take an engine to the fire and wait for backup, which they have to do now anyway, said Assistant City Manager Brian Moura.

“By splitting your crew, you’re utilizing them more efficiently,” Moura said.

Moura said cross-staffing will be part of a proposal for a standalone San Carlos fire department, one of several alternatives to its joint department with Belmont, which is set to break up in October.

But Ed Hawkins, president of firefighters union Local 2400, said any such change would have to take response times to fire incidents into account.

Hawkins said cross-staffing could impact the department’s ability to get enough firefighters to a fire call within national response guidelines, which require four firefighters at a fire within five minutes.

“We won’t necessarily oppose [cross-staffing],” Hawkins said, “but we want to make sure they’ve accounted for all the variables to make sure their citizens are still protected.”

San Mateo County is considering a similar staffing change in the unincorporated San Mateo Highlands, where Station 17 currently has six firefighters on two engines.

Officials are looking to use five firefighters at the station, which would allow three firefighters to respond to a fire and two to a medical call, said Deputy County Manager Peggy Jensen.

The two-person team would still use an engine, but less staff will help cut costs to close a $350,000 budget hole, Jensen said.

San Carlos Vice Mayor Andy Klein said the city’s Laurel Street truck responds frequently to ailing residents at the nearby senior center. “You’re sending this $1.3 million piece of equipment three blocks to a medical call. It’s not a proper use of the vehicle.”

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