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Wear badge, fight fires Tom Basinski | Fri, May 14 2010 11:58 AM

Cost cutting plan had Chula Vista cops fighting fires, too

In the early 1980s I was involved in contract negotiations between the Chula Vista Police Officers' Association and the city.

Lane Cole was the city manager but subordinates did the negotiating. Cole looked for ways to save money.

Mr. Cole put the Fire Department in his cross hairs and tried to conserve dough on their backs. I never spoke to Cole personally, but I learned from other city administrators that Cole was upset because the smoke eaters got paid for 1) eating, 2) watching television in their La-Z-Boy recliners, 3) sleeping and 4) exercise.

He also didn't like their schedule of 24 hours on and 48 off, with additional free time called "Kelly Days."

One year the fire department asked me to emcee. at a retirement dinner. About one guy I said, "The hardest part of being retired for Don is that instead of going to work four days a month, he'll be going to work no days a month." Ba da boom!

That lame line produced a big laugh, probably because I performed after happy hour. The firefighters were great sports, most of them anyway.

At first, Cole suggested the firefighters become city park maintenance guys. That is, they could mow lawns, empty trash and paint the restrooms. That idea eventually died. Cole's second idea carried a modicum of validity. He wanted Chula Vista to have "public safety officers." The concept had possible merit when examined initially, but would it stand the test of practicality?

He wanted to put more police officers on the road, normally a noble idea. But the cops would be cross-trained as firefighters. They would ride around in a patrol car with turnouts, helmets and other equipment in the trunk of the patrol car. When the bell rang, the lone driver at the station would drive the truck to the fire scene.

The cross-trained PSO would drive to the fire, don his fire gear, and put out the fire. (There were no female fighters back then, but several female police officers. How would that work? It was never addressed.)

When the concept of dual jobs was presented to the fire group they went through the roof faster than if they had made a hole with one of their rescue saws. We cops didn't like the idea either.

But our lead negotiator and association attorney told us to cool it. He said to let the fire guys be negative and pound the table. Even though we were dead set against it, we would feign a wise "wait and see" posture.

I don't think Lane Cole realized how much training firefighters had to do, and how much continuing education they had to undergo.

Learning about science and safety in the field of fire prevention and fighting fires was extensive. Besides, what were they going to do with all those La-Z-Boy recliners sitting in the various stations?

Cole did save a few dollars by not replacing the fire chief when he retired. He instead appointed Police Chief Bill Winters as the "director of public safety" over both departments. Winters was such a good guy that the firefighters accepted him as their leader.

Several studies were viewed across the country regarding the dual-purpose cops and firefighters. The unanimous conclusion was that a combined police and fire department might work, but only in a city that was newly incorporated and all of the new hires were cross-trained from the beginning. It had never worked in an established city.

The Chula Vista firemen said they did not want to carry guns. Myself, I privately thought it might be cool to be loved like a fireman.

But one night I had my one and only experience with a smoke-filled residence. A fire call came from an apartment complex I happened to be right in front of. I could see smoke coming out the windows. Within seconds I entered through the unlocked door, crawling low, looking for people. No one was there.

I got out just as the engines rolled up. I knelt in the parking lot coughing and gagging.

A firefighter watched over me while two others went inside. Soon my guardian was laughing. What could be so funny? I looked up to see a firefighter standing outside holding a pan of smoking refried beans left on the stove.

That was enough for me. I would love being a firefighter -until the bell rang.

Next time - Smoke, fire and tragedy.

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