Despite firefighters' scare tactics, city unlikely to burn to the ground because of proposed cuts

It was more than a century ago, but the horrors of the 1906 earthquake and fire aren't buried very deep in our collective subconscious. But those in need of a reminder need look no further than the home page of SFGate.com, where a banner ad with a panoramic photo of downtown burning features an ominous warning, "Don't let history repeat itself."

A plug for earthquake preparedness? Nope. The ad is the latest and shrillest offering from the Save Our Firehouses campaign, an effort funded by San Francisco Firefighters' Local 798. The progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors has borne the brunt of firefighters' ire, especially after it approved a plan to cut $27 million from the fire department's interim budget on June 16. Union members say the cuts will lead to something resembling Armageddon: 173 firefighters out of a job, 12 out of the city's 42 fire stations shuttered, 25 percent fewer fire engines available to respond to emergencies, and a redux of 1906.

It sounds awful. But is all this inflammatory rhetoric true? Highly doubtful.

The scary-sounding numbers come courtesy of the administration of Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, according to Tom O'Connor, Local 798's treasurer. "I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but [the jobs and the stations] are all that's left to cut," he said.

Freshman Supervisor John Avalos, one of the lefty supes who voted to chop the fire budget, and the author of a charter amendment that would extend firefighters' workweeks (and thus cut down on overtime costs), doesn't think so. "It's pure scaremongering," he said, noting that the fire department will suffer the apocalyptic consequences Hayes-White predicts only if it blows through its entire interim budget — $250 million — in the month of July (the only month the place-holding document is valid).

Nonetheless, Avalos is feeling the heat from the firefighters' campaign. He listened to kids perched on their firefighting parents' shoulders screaming for his recall, and now "I'm getting e-mails saying that I'm going to cause the next earthquake."

So does Avalos resent the firefighters? Far from it. After the June 16 meeting, he was at home, reading the book Firefighters from A to Z to his four-year-old son. "He wants to be a firefighter, and I think that's great," he said.

They make a great wage, after all: in some cases, more than an elected member of city government.

 
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