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Long Beach Home Burns Across The Street From Fire Station 17, Left Without Fire Engine In Mayor Backed/Council Majority Approved Budget Cuts; Engine 19 Races To Scene, Douses Flames; See Aftermath

by Bill Pearl
Includes additional material by Daryl Supernaw

(Feb. 2, 2014, 7:58 a.m., updated 10:16 a.m.) -- Imagine the following: you waken in the middle of the night to find your home on fire. You live across the street from a Long Beach Fire Station. You call 9-1-1 and get out...and then watch as firefighters arrive from across the street with a Fire Truck (whose crew can cut holes in the roof) but without a Fire Engine, which is the only apparatus that carries water and can actually spray water on a fire to put it out.

This actually happened in L.A. County's second largest city across the street from Long Beach Fire Station 17 in the 2200 block of Argonne Ave. in the predawn hours of Friday Jan. 31.

Photo by John Jaynes

LBFD Public Information Officer / Firefighter Matt Dobberpuhl says the call came in on Jan. 31, 2014 at 1:59 a.m.; Truck 17 was dispatched from Station 17 across the street at 2:00 a.m. At the same time, Engine 19 -- carrying water -- was dispatched from Station 19 on Clark Ave. near Conant St., a little over two miles away.

LBFD PIO Dobberpuhl says an initial timeline (based on dispatch information) indicates Truck 17 was on scene at 2:03 a.m....and Engine 19 (apparently traveling at blitz speed) arrived at 2:04 a.m. About a minute later, Engine 22 arrived from Station 22 on Atherton near Palo Verde, about two miles away.

Firefighters from Station 17 across the street scrambled onto the roof to cut holes and checked inside for other victims for what must have seemed like an eternity to the residents until Fire Engine 19 arrived with water.

Photo by John Jaynes

Based on its initial dispatch timeline, LBFD says about a minute passed between the time Station 17's crew arrived and Engine 19 arrived with water...but a general rule of thumb, stated many times by firefighters, is that a fire can double in size as each minute passes. One can speculate on what that minute, or minutes, may have meant on this fire.

Below is what we saw on scene on Saturday, Feb. 1.

Station 17 had a Fire Engine on scene from its opening on April 21, 1951 until January 2, 2013... more than 61 years.

LBFD archival photo

Station 17 opened with a "loaner" fire engine (photo above) because there weren't enough new apparatuses to fill all the new stations. Now Long Beach has more stations than apparatuses. There are no longer Fire Engines at Fire Stations 8 (2nd St./Belmont Shore), 17 (Argonne Ave.) and 18 (Palo Verde @ Wardlow.)

How did this happen?

Shortly after winning election in 2006 -- in part by lambasting his opponent, a Council incumbent who'd joined in unanimous Council votes approving a 2002 "pension spike" -- Mayor Bob Foster supported new contract provisions for all three of LB's major public employee unions (police, fire and non-public safety/IAM) who'd endorsed Foster's candidacy. The new contract provisions didn't provide taxpayers with pension reforms.

When the Firefighter and IAM contracts came to the Council for approval in spring 2008, then-Councilwoman Rae Gabelich turned to City Manager West and asked simply, "How are we going to pay for this?" When West's responses didn't satisfy her, she voted against both contracts. Councilman Gary DeLong joined her in voting against the IAM (non-public safety) contract.

Within months (fall 2008), the "Great Recession" began...and Long Beach City Hall suddenly found itself unable to pay for contracts that (if they ever were sustainable) had clearly become unsustainable. Mayor Foster responded by demanding that the unions re-open the contracts he'd supported and agree to pension changes (which they ultimately did) and simultaneously proposed what he described as "proportional budget reductions," in which every city department would be required to cut its budget in proportion to its General Fund spending. Since police and fire account for the largest proportion of General Fund spending, the "proportional reductions" had a disproportionate impact on police and fire budgets.

In September 2009 and 2010, the City Council approved, without voted dissent, budgets that significantly cut fire and police budgets (among others), but by September 2011, there was resistance.

Mayor Foster clashed with Councilmembers Gerrie Schipske, Rae Gabelich and Steven Neal who proposed an alternative budget to avert more of Foster's recommended budget cuts by using oil revenue. Foster, who noted that the price of oil is volatile, called their proposal "irresponsible" and his Council allies voted it down (Garcia, Lowenthal, DeLong, O'Donnell, Andrews, Johnson.)

A year later on September 3, 2012, the Council enacted a FY13 budget in which management proposed, Mayor Foster recommended and a Council majority agreed to eliminate another fire engine. The Mayor's choice to head the Council's "Public Safety Committee," Robert Garcia, held no hearing in his committee to discuss the public safety implications of Mayor's recommended FY13 or FY14 budgets.

City management didn't say publicly which fire engine would be eliminated, a decision left to Fire Chief Mike DuRee. On December 17, 2012, a week before Christmas (when many people aren't focused on news), Chief DuRee composed a memo explaining that Fire Engine 17 would be eliminated at Station 17. It was a "to-for" memo, a routine format written by management level personnel to the City Manager for distribution to the Mayor and City Council. "To-for" memos aren't routinely agendized for public discussion. provides a copy of the memo below. It was made public at the time (under her "open up Long Beach policies") by Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske.

Dec. 2012: Long Beach Fire Chief tells Mayor/Council Fire Engine 17 Will Be Eliminated under Council Budget...

In August 2013 -- entering the 2014 election cycle -- Long Beach city management announced that the City had a budget surplus. Among other things, cash was flowing in from Sacramento as a result of state lawmakers ending Redevelopment [something Mayor Foster and the Council had opposed.] At an August 2013 news conference announcing City Hall's proposed FY14 budget, asked if it included raises for city employees [after labor negotiations had appeared as closed session agenda items for weeks.] The Mayor and City Manager said "no"...which was accurate. A few weeks after adopting the budget, the Council approved unbudgeted raises of roughly 15% over two years for city management.

City officials portrayed the raises as "pension reform" on grounds the new contracts required employees to pay the full share of their pension...but did this by giving the employees taxpayer paid raises that exceeded whatever the employees would have to pay (reducing the immediate General Fund cost but also increasing the ultimate pension payout.)

A month after approving the raises, in November 2013 the Council declined to allocate funds to restore Engine 8 and Rescue 12 after city management said restoring those services would require cuts to LBFD, cuts elsewhere or tapping reserves that would invite a future deficit. Chief DuRee said a new lower cost paramedic response system (that he says is superior on its merits but the LB Firefighters Ass'n says it will worsen patient care) will provide paramedic/ambulance service at Station 12 [where Rescue 12 was eliminated] as well as at two other fire stations. Restoring Engine 17 wasn't on the table.

In December 2013, with only Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske dissenting, the Council voted to incur upfront costs ranging from nearly $1 million to as much as $3+ million, to prepare a "Request for Proposals" to build an entirely new Civic Center under a "public private partnership" outsourcing type arrangement with a private developer/operator. It did so without having issued a Request for Proposals inviting marketplace bids/proposals from firms to seismically retrofit LB's less than 40-year old City Hall.

Less than sixty days later on the morning of January 31, 2014, Fire Engine 17 wasn't available to put out a fire in a house directly across the street from Fire Station 17.

An initial version of this story put the distance from Station 19 at about three miles using, but a shorter route on puts the distance at a bit over two miles and our text above is updated accordingly.

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