Council OKs three new firefighter positions, strategic plan to study other LBFD recommendations


City Council this week unanimously approved a study of the local fire department and several action items, including adding three firefighter positions and developing a strategic plan to further analyze other ideas.

Councilmembers voted 5-0 on Tuesday (June 11) to: Receive a presentation on the results of the Laguna Beach Fire Department standards of cover study; add three full-time firefighter positions to the city’s fiscal year 2025 budget; develop a strategic plan to continue evaluation and addressing the SOC study recommendations and reappropriate $25,000 from the remaining FY 2023-24 SOC budget to develop the strategic plan.

There is a strong consensus on the council that public safety is the most important topic they deal with in the city, said Councilmember Bob Whalen. These are good recommendations that should be adopted, he emphasized.

This is long overdue, not just for the fire department but the city as a whole, added Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi. Until the council subcommittee worked on the wildfire mitigation plan, the city – which has a significant wildfire risk – was “not doing nearly enough” to tackle the issue, he said. He also asked for an update at a future meeting on the implementation of the plan.

These are discussions they need to have for both fire and police departments, said Councilmember Geoge Weiss. However, if all of the recommendations are ultimately embraced, they also need to consider the cost-benefit analysis. Although it’s hard to pin down exactly how much these items would improve public safety, he added.

He’s supportive of some of the recommended actions the council was asked to vote on, Weiss said, but he was unsure about the additional full-time firefighters. He questioned if there would be space for the new employees and asked about the cost of the new three full-time firefighters.

“I’m all for improving public safety,” Weiss said. “We’re raising our budget. I’m just reluctant to add staff because I’m cheap on behalf of the residents.”

According to the staff report, the cost of three full-time firefighter/paramedics with benefits is $413,479.74 annually.

There would be space as the three firefighters would be placed at fire station one, next to city hall, explained Fire Chief Niko King. Adding them to the roster would allow engine one to stay in service more often at the city’s busiest station. The ambulance at the station completes about three or four transports every day, he noted, and on average two of those are advanced life support service. That means they’re out of service for a couple of hours a day because the ambulance and firefighter/paramedic is out of town, King explained.

Considering that a fire engine is currently out of service potentially for a few hours every day, depending on the number of calls for the advanced life support ambulance service, this is going to provide an immediate benefit, Whalen commented.

Weiss asked for a report back on other investments the city has made into public safety to find out how operations and efficiency has improved in the department.

That’s a valid point, Whalen noted. They should get feedback on the effectiveness of all added positions to the city staff roster, he said.

He’s supportive of the items and is satisfied that this is the right thing to do, Weiss reiterated, he just wants to be careful about spending and adding more staff.

Rounaghi agreed that they need to be fiscally responsible, but added that the report does a good job of explaining how these three firefighter positions will improve response time and enhance operations.

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Photo by Josh Tanaka @j.t.films

A standards of cover study was recently completed on the Laguna Beach Fire Department and included several recommendations (pictured: LBFD responding to a car fire in April)

King would like to see the city move forward on the strategic plan within a three-year timeframe, he said, answering a council question. They could go through the recommendations, identify their resources, and with direction from the council and input from the community, prioritize the recommendations and develop objectives and goals.

“A big challenge is going to be to identify funding for implementation because there’s some big items in there,” he noted, including replacing fire stations and apparatus.

Whalen asked if they could do it in phases, in an effort to get some of the recommendations addressed more quickly.

There are some funds left over from the consultant contract, King confirmed, and the company is now familiar with the community and the details in the report. He believes a strategic plan could be created in as little as three months, King said.

“That would be record time,” Whalen responded.

He was encouraged to hear the potential for a fast turnaround on the plan.

“There’s a lot more to be implemented,” Whalen said. “What we’re adopting today is really just an initial baby step and the strategic plan will give us the road map to what else we have to do.”

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In 2021, the Laguna Beach Fire Department received approval to undertake a community risk assessment and a standards of cover study. The CRA analyzes historical data to assess existing risks within the community, while the SOC study evaluates station locations, programs, equipment and resource deployment based on past departmental performance. The SOC report provides recommendations in four key areas: Service deployment, personnel and staffing, community risk reduction and management components. The primary goal of the standards of cover analysis is to provide recommendations that align the fire department services with state and national best practices.

In late 2022, LBFD engaged Emergency Services Consulting International to conduct this analysis.

The study’s findings were presented to the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee, which voted in support of the recommendations.

There were a number of recommendations that ESCI advised the city to evaluate further.

The company suggested that the city improve its staffing levels over the next five years to meet National Fire Protection Association’s recommended effective response force capability to manage low and moderate risk incidents.

They also recommended the city employ a full-time public educator to manage community risk reduction programs in coordination with the city’s emergency manager and fire marshal. Public education programs could also be improved through increased community awareness about the city’s significant risks: Wildfires, mudslides, flash floods and earthquakes.

ESCI also noted that needed further evaluation was needed regarding developing alternatives to improve manipulative, fireground training capabilities within the city and with regional partners.

In coordination with Orange County communications, they also suggested the city evaluate all essential communications infrastructure locations in Laguna Beach for resistance to wildfire and natural disasters to ensure communications during significant emergencies.

To improve service that would otherwise be addressed with a ladder truck and to address limited access issues, the department should evaluate the potential benefit of replacing one type l engine with a “telesquirt” type of apparatus (an apparatus with a telescoping boom) to provide a rapidly deployable elevated fire stream and lightweight ladder capability.

They also noted that a dedicated information technology staffer or a contracted third-party service could meet the varied challenges with timely repairs on emergency response systems.

The consultants also noted that Laguna Beach should consider supporting full sponsorships of paramedic training programs among existing firefighters and consider transitioning the current part-time nurse educator to a full-time position.

Rounaghi also supported full sponsorships of paramedic training programs among existing firefighters and transitioning the current part-time nurse educator to a full-time. Those are “low hanging fruit” items that make a lot of sense and could make a notable difference.

“That seems to me, intuitively, to be a good idea,” Rounaghi said.

He also agreed with the three additional firefighter positions and suggested they strive to go beyond that.

Some of the key findings in the report include that Laguna Beach is geographically isolated from other communities, which makes it difficult for outside resources to respond to the city in a timely manner, and that the community is high risk (compared to adjacent jurisdictions) with the geography, urban interface and local environment.

They also found that the response force in the fire department is undersized for moderate community risks.

ESCI Project Manager Richard Curtis shared maps highlighting the impact areas of the various risks (wildfire, earthquake, landslide, etc.) based on a variety of information, including from the building department (square footage, building height, built-in mitigation systems like sprinklers, etc.) and environmental data (soil type, earthquake frequency, etc.).

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Screenshot of ESCI presentation/Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A screenshot of the ESCI presentation showing a chart comparing the suggested number of firefighters versus LBFD’s current capability for various hazard events and risk levels

Curtis also shared a matrix of eight various hazard event types and the risk level (four levels) the community would face for each, for example: A low-risk wildland fire would be about 20 feet by 20 feet, moderate risk would be about one-acre, high risk approximately 10 acres and the extreme risk for a wildland fire would cover 100 acres. The table also noted earthquakes (from minor shaking as a low risk to a 9.5 magnitude, which would put the community at high risk), structure and vehicle fires (from a shed to a multi-story commercial building), hazardous material (a low-risk level exterior broken gas line to an overturned large fuel tanker), and more.

They also analyzed the details of the various tasks and equipment that would be required for each level of every type of hazard. A comparison chart showed how many firefighters/fire department staffers would be needed for each level of risk for every hazard versus the current number of LBFD employees.

“Based on those four different risk levels and those eight event types, we identified the number of firefighters you have available from the Laguna Beach Fire Department to be able to mitigate those risks, and we find that in the moderate, high risk and extreme risk, there’s insufficient numbers of firefighters to meet that risk,” Curtis said.

While most communities can’t produce enough firefighters for extreme risk and many don’t have enough to cover the high risk (typically, the jurisdictions that can are more metropolitan areas), he explained that a number of communities do provide enough firefighters to at least manage the moderate risk.

This is the crux of one of their recommendations, he added.

“That’s the foundation of which we’re making our recommendation,” Curtis said. “You’re just a little undersized on the number of firefighters to be able to meet that standard within a timeframe of an effective response force.”

He also shared maps highlighting where the concentration of EMS, fire, and other calls for service are focused (primarily in the Downtown and Main Beach area, with a couple hot spots in Laguna Canyon and South Laguna).

Weiss asked if the suggested improvements would have an impact on insurance rates for residents, regarding wildfire risks. While the ESCI consultants agreed they weren’t qualified to definitively say one way or the other, associate consultant Patrick McIntosh commented that improving the city’s ISO rating (a score for a department’s preparedness to prevent and ability to extinguish fires) has the potential to be beneficial.

“I certainly can’t say what the insurance industry is going to do next, (but) something obviously has to happen because it’s not working for homeowners in California, and other states as you see across the country,” Curtis said. “ISO improvement certainly is helpful. What everything the insurance company is going to do is hard to say, but I think the more prevention things we can do in the city, the better positioned we are for those arguments and those conversations.”

A handful of Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee members and residents spoke during public comment, echoing support for the study and recommended actions.

Laguna Beach Fire Department worked with the best consultants to produce “the gold standard” report, said resident and EDPC member Matt Lawson.

“The bottom line is, it’s not about the odds, it’s about the stakes,” he said. “This is what we need to do, there’s no question about that, to mitigate the enormous and existential risk of wildfire that we face in this community.

Lawson commented that this is a prudent investment to protect the residents, safeguard homes, preserve the ability to obtain fire insurance and mortgages, secure the city’s tax base, to care for the local environment and do all they can to ensure the unique community avoids a tragic fate.

Adding three firefighters to LBFD will bring the department up to the minimum nationally recommended levels of staffing, noted committee member Sonny Myers. Having adequate personnel available at all times to protect Laguna Beach citizens and property should be a top priority, he added.

Fellow EDPC member Tim Templeton doesn’t think they can significantly impact insurance in town, so the next best thing is not to need it, he said.

“That’s (done by) having good coverage, good response to fires, defensible space, doing all the things that we recommended,” Templeton said. “I’m here to just continue to push for better coverage and better public safety so that we really don’t have to worry about insurance.”


Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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