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Failed Court Effort Clears Way for All-Civilian Staff : Santa Ana Firefighters Lose in Bid to Retain Paramedic Status

Times Staff Writer

An Orange County Superior Court judge Friday rejected an attempt by Santa Ana’s remaining four firefighter-paramedics to retain their positions, clearing the way for the city to move to an all-civilian paramedic force.

The action is part of the city’s plan to reassign all “sworn” paramedics--or those who have firefighting as well as paramedic training--to firefighting duties, a process that has whittled those ranks from about 24 to four in the past year. City Manager Robert C. Bobb said those duties would be assumed by “non-sworn” civilian paramedics who are not trained in firefighting, a force that has grown from 18 to 31 people in the same period.

The four, who recently were told by letter that they would lose their paramedic status, attempted to obtain a temporary restraining order but were rejected by Judge James L. Smith. Attorney Seth Kelsey, who represents the four as well as the city’s fire and police unions, said he would press on with a lawsuit attempting to reverse the action.

Two of the paramedics, Donald Mahany and Russell Garcia, were officially reassigned Friday. The others, Jim Costello and Jerry Flores, will be reassigned Nov. 15.

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Higher Efficiency Cited

Flores, who stressed that the non-sworn paramedics do “a good job,” said he has inquired about jobs in other county cities. More than 20 “sworn” and civilian paramedics have left the department since the city began its move in August, 1984, according to Fireman’s Benevolent Assn. board member Ray Comeau.

Bobb said Friday that the move would make the department more efficient and save the city money because firefighter-paramedics can make up to $32,036 per year, while a civilian paramedic’s top pay is $27,732. According to a report by Bobb to the City Council, a sworn paramedic costs the city an average of $54,000 per year while a civilian paramedic costs an average of $34,000--due to extra health and pension benefits paid to firefighters.

“I hate the thought of leaving the City of Santa Ana,” said Flores, who has been a Santa Ana paramedic for 2 1/2 years. “But I feel we’re being forced out. If we want to continue a career as paramedics, we’re forced to seek employment elsewhere.”

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He said morale has been very low and the atmosphere has been “very uneasy, very stressful” during the move to “civilianize” the Fire Department. “This job is stressful enough as it is,” he said. “We don’t need the added stress.”

Said former paramedic Bill Keen, who now works for the City of Garden Grove: “We all worked very hard to become paramedics. To put in all that time and effort and then to just give it up and go back to firefighting wasn’t worth it. There was no way I could stay there under those circumstances.”

‘Nowhere to Go’

Union officials and sworn medics argue that the civilian medics are hampered by their lack of firefighting training. For example, Costello said, if a person were trapped in a car wreck with spilled gasoline, the civilians couldn’t help.

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In addition, if they suffer from burnout, they can’t be voluntarily reassigned to firefighting duties. “They have nowhere to go,” he said.

Bobb admitted that the issue has had a debilitating effect on morale. “It has, there’s no question about that,” he said. “The point is that we’re going to a private paramedic service, period.”

He said the “sworn” medics were so busy in their lifesaving duties that they never really worked as firefighters anyway. “Their primary purpose should be in fire suppression,” he said.

Fire Chief William Reimer, who has stated his support for civilianization in the past, declined to comment, as did Karl Gilbody, the city’s paramedic coordinator.

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Bobb had previously proposed that paramedic services be handled through a private firm but the City Council rejected that plan at an August, 1984, meeting. Since then, the city has gradually reassigned the sworn medics while adding to the city’s civilian corps.

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During the changeover, the battle became increasingly political. The firefighters’ union published an advertisement in the Orange County Register detailing its side of the fight. The advertisement led off with the statement, “Your well-being--your life--is being placed at risk by City Hall bureaucrats . . . “

Bobb said: “The association has been less than truthful to the community.”

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In September, the association’s attorney, Kelsey, filed two lawsuits charging the city with union-busting, alleging that city officials encouraged the civilian medics to avoid joining the association and offered legal assistance if it was required.

Kelsey also filed a grievance with the city regarding the reassignments but said he would pursue the lawsuit in the meantime, hoping for a hearing within 30 days. “I don’t plan on waiting for the city to act on the grievance,” Kelsey said. “We may be fighting an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to lose.”

While Friday’s Superior Court ruling means the city’s final reassignments will go through, the issue is by no means over, Kelsey stressed.


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