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Fire Chief's Latest Alarms Are Political

Head of County Authority, Which Also Serves 19 Cities, May Steer a Restructuring

December 29, 1998|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a framed photograph on the wall of his office that shows Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather covered in soot, disheveled, with a look of pained exhaustion on his face.

The picture was taken in October 1993, when Prather and hundreds of his fellow firefighters fought the devastating Laguna Beach blaze that roared down Laguna Canyon Road and, in some places, didn't stop until it reached the Pacific.

That photo may well represent the good old days for Prather. He will begin the new year amid the sparks of a different conflagration, the political kind.

At issue is the very future of the Fire Authority, which in January begins discussions about whether to restructure the way fire services are paid for--and delivered.

There's not much Prather can do alone to affect the outcome. The authority's 21-member Board of Directors must decide the overarching issue of funding contributions from 19 cities and the county and how to reconcile the fact that most of the cities are getting more services than they're paying for.

Though public debate hasn't even started, some cities already have raised the possibility of pulling out of the authority, which was formed in 1995 in the wake of the county bankruptcy. The authority's 16 original cities made a three-year commitment but now can leave after giving 12 months' notice; three more cities have three-year contracts.

Keeping the authority together is Prather's priority for the next year.

"The regional delivery system we have is a benefit to the entire community in terms of services and cost, and we have to preserve that," said Prather, 45, who was appointed to his job in October 1997.

The unique--many say unwieldy--structure of the authority has created other vexing problems, among them difficulties in obtaining financing for capital improvements because most of the cities participate on a year-to-year basis. Prather wants to see longer contracts with cities or an agreement that if cities pull out, they remain obligated for any of the authority's long-term financial commitments.

"It's unfair that someone could [vote to] obligate the organization to long-term liabilities such as bond financing and then give notice and leave," he said.

His final goal is to get through the so-called equity study that the board will tackle next month and decide on a reasonable timetable for future reviews on each city's financial contributions. Prather suggests that the board revisit the issue every five years.

"This whole issue is very divisive, and whether the board ultimately decides to [change the current system] or not, it causes conflict," he said.

The Fire Authority was faced with division when Prather took over the job 14 months ago. Weeks before, more than 100 firefighters had staged a sickout to protest stalled labor negotiations and having to work into their third year without a signed contract. Firefighters had walked protest lines at Edison International Field in Anaheim and taken their case directly to city councils.

At that time, Prather's goal was reaching agreement with the union and getting a contract signed. It took six months.

Another problem facing the authority was growing animosity between full-time firefighters and the legion of part-time paid "volunteers." The union contended that the "paid-call" firefighters were endangering the safety of the full-timers and the public with their lower level of training and that they were less reliable in even showing up at the scene. The association representing paid-call workers fired back that the union was trying to muscle them out so it could get more full-timers to replace them.

In September, Prather shocked both sides by announcing that the paid-call program would end Jan. 1, replaced by true volunteers, who would get a fraction of the paid-call workers' pay. The problem, he said, was that paid-call workers were intended to be volunteers but had become so ingrained in the system that the program threatened to violate federal wage and hour laws.

Now it was the paid-call group's turn to publicly protest, warning city councils that, without them, fire services would collapse.

Joe Kerr, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn., praised Prather then for coming out of the ranks to take on a nearly impossible assignment. Kerr continues to laud Prather's accomplishments and said the job is no easier with a signed contract and the bold decision on the paid-call situation.

"He's trying, but he has some huge barriers," Kerr said. "He took over a colossal program with 21 bosses and 19 city managers, and any one of them can pull his string any time of the day."

Prather said he's becoming more adept at maneuvering through the authority's multilayered hierarchy. He's gained the confidence of board officials, including Chairman Mike Ward of Irvine, particularly for being accessible to the communities the authority serves.

Another push for the new year will be emergency management and community safety training, work that reaches beyond the demands of fighting fires, which now make up about only one in every four calls. One program spotlights the dangers to children of backyard pools.

"I know in my heart that there are children alive because of our efforts," Prather said.

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