Five Cities Fire Authority delays raises because of disclosure failures

May 19, 2020

Fire Chief Stephen Lieberman


The Five Cities Fire Authority Board delayed plans last week to give raises and bonuses to all fire personnel, allowing Arroyo Grande Councilman Keith Storton time to comply with his city’s requirement to get council approval to spend more than $10,000.

While government shortfalls are leading to reductions in pay and layoffs, fire authority staff is seeking a 2 percent pay increase, and a one-time lump sum payment of $1,000 per employee. In contrast, state fire personnel are receiving 10 percent reductions in pay because of issues related to the coronavirus.

The fire authority is made up of three member agencies: Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and the Oceano Community Services District, all of which are currently facing financial hardships because of the pandemic.

During last week’s fire authority meeting, Oceano representative Karen White argued that they had already budgeted the raises and bonuses into their prospective budgets.

The matter “has already been approved,” White said.

Nevertheless, Storton argued that the public needed to fully understand the impacts of the raises and bonuses as they relate to the “Covid budget.” Recently, Arroyo Grande initiated furloughs and hiring and travel freezes, and deferred project maintenance. In order to implement the proposed raises and bonuses, all three members of the board would have to vote to approve.

Of the fire authority’s 32 fire personnel, 15 make over $150,000 a year in salary and benefits, according to Transparent California.

Fire authority’s top earners:

  • Fire Engineer Joseph Silva – $219,130
  • Fire Chief Stephen Lieberman – $218,514
  • Fire Captain Paul Quinlan – $218,165
  • Fire Captain Brian Leathers – $207,459
  • Fire Battalion Chief Brian Salce – $200,152
  • Fire Captain Patric Ferguson – $198,007
  • Fire Battalion Chief Riki Heath – $190,608
  • Fire Captain John Bova – $186,826

Decades ago, with improved fire prevention methods, fire departments began focusing on health care emergencies in order to fund their agencies. Currently, firefighters respond to medical calls first, while ambulance drivers delay their response for five minutes. If there is a medical emergency requiring transportation, the ambulance medics take over medical care and transport the patient to a hospital.

Critics have questioned the efficiency of the system.

And as the controversy over the cost versus the benefits of having firefighters respond to all medical calls heats up, several communities in California have switched or are in the process of switching to a system where private ambulance personnel respond to most medical calls without dispatching fire trucks and safety workers.

For example, during contract negotiations 14 years ago, San Joaquin County adopted the practice of sending out the “correct resource” for each emergency call, either a fire truck or an ambulance.

“If you send the cavalry to each call, even if they are not needed, they may not be available when you need them,” said Dan Burch, San Joaquin County’s director of Emergency Services, who also noted the cost savings of not rolling out unneeded vehicles for each call.

Burch said the change saved taxpayer dollars, while also improving quality of care as patients receive continuous care from the original medics.

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It’s time to get serious about financial responsibility.

FCFA employees respond to a majority of calls for medical aid, NOT fires.

This agency is too top heavy to continue, Oceano residents failed to pass a tax increase, and Arroyo Grande is using sales tax revenue to pay their share.


The delay was the correct decision. Those salaries look very high for such a small fire/medical aid agency. Hence the budget short falls. What is the range of the other 17 firefighters. Just a thought here. Maybe some of the fire engineers, captains, and chiefs and those making $150,000 could return 1% of their salaries to help fund a portion of the pay increase and bonus. Sounds logical, and more importantly, fair to the agency as a whole to keep serving their communities.


How can you put a price on safety, right? These salaries are a symptom of a society that can’t tolerate any risk.

Reality Check

Salaries from $186K to $219K! What are they thinking? Those salaries seem high in any sane world


CalCoastNews: can you clarify your source for “the ambulance driver delays by 5 minutes?” The ambulance and fire engines get dispatched at the same time everywhere in our county, there is no intentional delay, that statement is false and misleading.


Under their contract with the county, San Luis Ambulance pays first-responder fees as a way for fire departments to receive compensation for assisting the private ambulance company as the first to arrive on scene in medical emergencies. The fire departments do arrive first under the contract. The source was the supervisor meeting where they voted to renew the contract.



I see where the miscommunication is happening. You’re referring to the ambulance contractor’s time requirement: they have to arrive at the scene of an emergency in an urban area in 10 minutes or less. If the fire department arrives first, then that satisfies their 10 minute response time and allows them to break that requirement since the fire department begins initiating care. That in no way means that the ambulance contractor is intentionally delaying their response pending the fire department’s assessment, it simply allows them to have less ambulances in a given area. Please review the ambulance contractor’s contract on the county website, and contact any fire department in the county for source audio dispatch recordings where you will see both fire and ambulance units being dispatched and proceeding toward the emergency simultaneously. There is no delay, the ambulances just aren’t as plentiful as the fire stations are, which is why the pass through fee model exists to allow fire departments to recover their costs for providing medical services as they cannot bill for the materials used during an emergency. I request that you retract that statement in your article and provide a correction.


There was an attempt by the SLO fire department to take over ambulance services and secure their jobs. They even bought an ambulance. The ambulance company pays about $1 million a year for first responders to show up first, which drives up the cost of ambulance rides. The ambulance company could afford more ambulances, but they are not the first responder in this county.



The information you provided does not provide clarity or a source to your original statement that the ambulance company intentionally waits for 5 minutes before responding to an emergency call. That statement is false and misleading. Case in point: in Paso Robles, the ambulance company rents space in the fire station and houses their personnel there. Both the ambulance and fire engine respond at the exact same time.

There is no 5 minute delay. Please retract the statement.

kevin rise

That kind of salary is shocking, for anyone in EMS or medical that’s like Stanford Medicine League surgeon pay, idk how you can go from 50k a year as a firefighter to 200k, a good job to have right, in a community that’s under 70-80k? Its incredible we had a surplus, I guess thats taxation and CA. Lord knows how much the Malibu Fire Chief makes or even other locals, like Atascaderos police chief. It’s close in pay!


We should not be taking financial recommendations from Karen White (a longtime OCSD board member), she’s partially responsible for the mess Oceano finds themselves in.

Storton (retired PD), what are the chances he’s going to be on the side of the taxpayers, NONE?

One look at those top salaries and it’s no wonder we can’t afford the FCFA.


“Karen White argued that they had already budgeted the raises and bonuses into their prospective budgets.”

so you can’t revisit it? is it etched in stone on a tablet obtained from a burning bush? what BS.


I’m sorry but Karen White is out of touch with reality and needs to be replaced.

This is exactly why I noted NO on A-20.

Of the fire authority’s 32 fire personnel, 15 make over $150,000 a year in salary and benefits. When are we going to adopt the practice of sending out the “correct resource” for each emergency call? Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do?

State fire personnel are receiving 10 percent reductions in pay because of issues related to the coronavirus. I think we should follow suit.

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