By Ryan Hagen , The Sun
San Bernardino could privatize fire services
SAN BERNARDINO >> The city might become the first in the state to rely on a for-profit firm for firefighting
and emergency medical services, but to do so it will have to overcome opposition that’s already mounting up
and down the state.
The City Council committed Monday night in a 6-1 vote to a plan that includes contracting out for those
services — and depends on $7 million to $10 million in projected savings from that move to help the city’s
bankruptcy exit plan survive — and proposals from interested groups were due at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
The bids themselves won’t be made public until the week before the June 15 meeting at which the council
will be asked to vote on the proposal, according to city spokeswoman Monica Lagos, but a private firm called
Centerra was one of three participants at a May 5 meeting designed to give information to potential bidders.
The others were the San Bernardino County Fire Department and the Colton Fire Department, which shares
resources with the Loma Linda Fire Department.
Even before Monday’s vote, the head of the union representing San Bernardino County firefighters, Jim
Grigoli, spent Monday in Sacramento rallying opposition to the move.
“I’d be doing the same if this was Orange County … and I think you will have the California Professional
Firefighters standing against this 100 percent, and (union) locals from all of the state,” Grigoli said by phone.
“You’re talking about public safety. You’re crossing a fine line when you do that with a private company.”
City officials have made a long, often-contested effort to outsource fire services, and City Manager Allen
Parker received in August permission to begin discussions with other entities that could take over in the city.
Only more recently, after Cal Fire refused to bid to provide those services, did privatization become a
prominent option, but privatizing as much as possible helps the city escape the burden of high payments to
the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, Parker said Monday.
Fire and trash services are the two highest-priority targets for outsourcing because of the money it will bring
into the general fund, according to the city’s analysis, but close to 20 other services are also on the
outsourcing list. One function that won’t be outsourced is policing, according to Parker, because the only
possible entity to take that over would be the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and he believes
calculations that it wouldn’t save any money.
Councilman Jim Mulvihill drew particular attention when he predicted Monday that San Bernardino would be
the first of many cities to privatize its Fire Department.
“Every time you pick up the newspaper, there’s another city that’s having financial problems,” Mulvihill said
Wednesday. “(And) all cities want to economize regardless of their financial situation. From my point of view,
why should we be offering a heavily subsidized service, when we’re going to have the same system — when
a firefighter comes up to our door, or EMS, we don’t ask what union they’re in. We just want a firefighter
A major concern, as Parker acknowledged Monday, is the possibility that other agencies might not enter a
mutual aid agreement with a private firm. Several officials from nearby fire agencies said they would oppose
entering such agreements, in which nearby agencies respond to calls when needed or work together on
major fires, with a private firm.
County Fire Department spokeswoman Tracey Martinez said mutual aid decisions are made case by case,
and a private firm might be unable to get enough.
“The use of a private firm for fire service could potentially be a problem,” she said. “…San Bernardino County
Fire has many concerns when it comes to privatization: accountability, training and qualifications to name a
But Centerra spokeswoman Susan Pitcher said the firm had provided fire services in Hall County, Georgia,
and Estero, Florida, when it was previously known as Wackenhut Services.
“The model for public-private partnership has been in place in the United States for more than a halfcentury,”
she said in an email. “In addition to our fire and emergency services portfolio, companies like Rural
Metro have been providing services for municipalities around the U.S. since 1948, while companies like
Falck claim more than 100 years of experience in this arena globally.”
The training Centerra’s firefighters receive is the same as public agencies, and each of their fire departments
have mutual aid agreements, she said.
Still, Grigoli found a sympathetic audience with officials beyond firefighters for his message that privatizing
public safety is fundamentally wrong.
“While I am supportive of the City contracting with private companies for non-public safety services such as
refuse collection and street cleaning, I believe public safety services, such as firefighting, should not be
privatized,” Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, R-Rancho Cucamonga, said in an email Wednesday. “As
someone who cares deeply about our community of San Bernardino and as your Assemblyman, I want to
make clear that I am not opposed to the City contracting out fire services in order to capture the cost savings
they desperately need, but I am opposed to contracting out a core public safety service to a private
Among Centerra’s clients are Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, Florida, and JPL in Pasadena.
City fire union representatives said their response would come in the form of a written statement
As for the suggestion that a private company would be accountable to a profit motive instead of the public,
Mulvihill said that was already the case for the city’s firefighters.
“They’re sort of the flagship of irresponsibility in terms of reacting to the city’s financial crisis,” he said,
referring to lawsuits, dropping out of bankruptcy mediation, and union members’ earlier refusal to accept 10
percent lower pay as other unions did. “And so to my point of view, we don’t have a very responsive fire
union. In America, competition is what makes business competitive. And if they (unions) come out in force,
it’s because they’re threatened by competition.”