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UNDER FIRE: La Verne Fire Department Battles Its Own Blaze

November 27, 2017
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La Verne Fire Chief Peter Jankowski

LA VERNE, California, November 27, 2017 — In less than a month, Christmas will arrive, along with the La Verne Fire Department’s 92-year custom of firefighters, family members and volunteers bringing Santa and bags of candy, peanuts and fruit to every child in the city – a herculean task traversing every one of La Verne’s 943 streets.

The long-established custom is the city’s and the fire department’s proudest tradition, which does more to promote La Verne’s small-town, neighborly charm than any other event. But just beneath that homey “It’s a Wonderful Life” veneer a serious dispute is brewing between the City (including the La Verne Fire Department’s  command staff) and the fire department’s rank and file members.

Cost Plus Mattress

On August 22, the La Verne Firefighters’ Association filed a 21-page tort claim with the City alleging that its members have suffered retaliation, harassment, discrimination and a host of other hostile actions (like arbitrary enforcement of a firefighter’s sideburn length), which is impacting their promotions, overtime, employee evaluations and financial and emotional health.

In particular, the Association alleges that the retaliation, harassment and discrimination its members have suffered stem from two highly visible and public actions: 1) the Association’s public support of non-incumbent candidates in connection with the March 2017 city council and mayoral elections and, 2) the Association’s May 8, 2017 vote of no confidence (26-1) in fire chief Peter Jankowski.

According to the claim, the vote of no confidence was in response to inadequate actions by city leadership “to upgrade the department’s aging, obsolete, and failing equipment — including trucks, hoses and self-contained breathing equipment.”

While the Association in its claim has charged Chief Jankowski of putting “public relations above public safety,” it further stated that it “did not take this vote lightly and have only done so after numerous efforts to address concerns.”

Missing in Action?

In recent City Council meetings, Association President Andy Glaze further criticized the La Verne Fire Department during the public comment period for not sending a fire company, entailing a fire engine and trained personnel, to assist Cal Fire and other departments in responding to wildfires across the state.

“Our failure to do our part in assisting to fight wildfires while every other city did its part was a disgrace to our profession,” he stated. “We asked the chief to send us and he refused as part of a continuing campaign of retaliation since the vote of no confidence. This sort of deceptive and unprofessional conduct is why we lost confidence in Chief Jankowski. He has zero support in the ranks. And we believe the city should terminate him and  search for a new chief. By supporting him you have emboldened him to ratify his retaliatory conduct, which is continuing and growing more aggressively by the day.”

While the Association has filed a tort claim and its president has spoken for the record at City Council meetings, from which the above information has been compiled and reported, the story of the dispute is far from complete. Because the claim if unresolved can turn into a lawsuit, Glaze referred any expansion of his comments to the Association’s legal counsel, Caleb Mason of Brown White & Osborn Attorneys LLP. Meanwhile, in La Verne Online’s interview with Chief Jankowski, it was also agreed to that addressing any questions about the Association’s claims would not be discussed because of the possibility of future litigation.

What was discussed with Chief Jankowski, however, was the La Verne Fire Department’s accomplishments and goals along with its many challenges and concerns.  Chief Jankowski did not ask to see any of LaVerneOnline’s questions in advance.

Veteran Chief

Chief Jankowski is a 28-year emergency services veteran. Before joining the La Verne Fire Department in 1999, he served as a paramedic for Mercy Air, a private aviation service that provides critical care transportation to ill or injured patients.

“I could be responding to an emergency in the high desert in the morning and another on Catalina Island in the afternoon,” Jankowski said. “I enjoyed that.”

Looking back on his career, he also believes his private-sector experience has been an asset in helping him become a better manager in terms of “how things are financed and reimbursed,” experience, he added, that is critical to the success of a public agency.

In working his way through the ranks of the La Verne Fire Department, Jankowski was both resourceful and resilient. As a working firefighter, he continued to go to school, first obtaining his undergraduate degree in Public Administration through the University of La Verne’s CAPA (Campus Accelerated Program for Adults) and a Master’s in Leadership from the USC Price School of Public Policy.

“I counted up once that I went to 11 colleges,” Jankowski said.

During his La Verne tenure, he spent seven years as a command staff member of California Incident Management Team 4, one of 17 national incident management teams. His team was deployed to national disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma and numerous wildfires.

Budget-Minded

Today, Chief Jankowski oversees an $8 million budget. The department comprises 34 sworn staff. In 2015, the department responded to 3,283 service calls; in 2016, there were 3,596 calls.

“We’re seeing about a 5 to 8 percent increase every year,” Jankowski said, noting that the increase is likely due to a growing segment of residents who still use emergency rooms as their primary health care provider.

Indeed, about four of every five calls that the La Verne Fire Department answers are for medical aid. Given that the vast majority of emergency calls involve medical assistance, the La Verne Fire Department hasn’t hired a non-paramedic firefighter since 2000.

“It doesn’t matter who arrives on the scene,” Jankowski said, “there will be paramedic capabilities.”

In fact, over the roughly nine square miles that make up La Verne, the city boasts four paramedic units.

“If you look around locally, you won’t see that anywhere,” Jankowski said.

And should La Verne residents require medical transport to a hospital, service recipients are billed only to the extent of their insurance coverage. They do not incur any out-of-pocket costs. Last year, by billing recipients’ insurance providers, the La Verne Fire Department was able to recoup roughly $700,000 in expenses.

“We are not an attack billing company,” Jankowski said. “That said, we want to get reimbursed as much as possible by the insurance company.”

Reimbursements or alternative sources of funding (outside the city’s general fund) have enabled the La Verne Fire Department to continue meeting a variety of needs, including fighting fires, of which there were 56 in La Verne in 2016.

Although there are far fewer fires in La Verne than medical calls, the blazes that firefighters do battle have become more intense over the years.

“Because of modern furniture, upholstery, light-weight construction, houses burn hotter than ever before,” Jankowski said. “So our time to get in there and limit the damage is less.”

Alternative Funding

By successfully securing alternative funds, Jankowski maintains the department has been able to obtain the necessary equipment to provide both the first-rate medical and fire-fighting assistance that the community has come to expect.

“We are not doing without apparatus, we are just finding other ways of purchasing it,” Jankowski said.

In particular, Jankowski credited Lauren Burtz, his assistant and the department’s management analyst, for securing grants totaling about $400,000 that have enabled the department to purchase cardiac monitors, gurneys for ambulances and other life-saving and fire-fighting equipment without burdening the general fund.

A big win for the city came last year when the La Verne Fire Department learned it was one of four agencies to receive a grant for its new Community Emergency Response Team Training (CERT) program.  Los Angeles County, the City of Los Angeles, and Long Beach each received $25,000. La Verne received $23,000. There are 31 fire agencies in Los Angeles County.

New CERT officers take over the lobby at La Verne City Hall.

In a major disaster, La Verne’s CERT volunteers will be counted on to assist families and neighbors until emergency personnel can arrive. Currently, there are about 90 CERT volunteers in La Verne.

“That’s outstanding,” Jankowski said, “and I’ve challenged them to reach 200 in 2018. Five years into the program, I would love to see 600 or 700 trained.”

Until then, Jankowski said he is preaching and implementing prevention policies and programs whenever and wherever he can.

Motivated to Serve

He has strong motivation. He recalled that in the early 2000s, two children and their grandmother who lived on Mansion Court in La Verne died after they were overcome with smoke from a fire that had started in the family’s entertainment center. The grandmother, who had recently returned to the home after a stay in the hospital, had been too weak to open the front door, which had been secured by a child-proof lock. A sliding glass door only 20 feet away would have provided a safe exit. If only, the children and their grandmother had received some kind of fire safety house training, they might have survived.

“Ever since that fire, I’ve been dedicated to make sure every kid has an opportunity to undergo this kind of [escape] training,” Jankowski said. On Dec. 4, the La Verne Fire Department will conduct fire safety house training for Grace Miller students.

Another of Jankowski’s goals is to see that every La Verne home has at least one functioning smoke alarm. “Your chance of dying in a residential house fire goes down 80 percent with one $20 smoke alarm,” he said, adding that if a family can’t afford a smoke alarm or doesn’t know how to install one, the La Verne Fire Department will be pleased to do so.

Jankowski is committed to expanding the critical lifesaving window for all La Verne residents, which includes supporting a robust citywide CPR training program.

“If we get there in five minutes and CPR has been going for four minutes, the odds of saving that person go way up,” Jankowski said. To participate in an upcoming CPR class, La Verne residents can call 596.5991.

Because La Verne is a foothill community, Jankowski is also focused on improving wildfire preparedness. To that extent, La Verne Fire Department teams have been giving presentations on what foothill residents can do to protect themselves and their properties from fire.

“I can’t tell you how many houses I’ve seen burn to the ground because they had firewood stacked under the balcony that caught fire from an ember,” Jankowski said.

Interestingly, while individuals have the right to stay in their homes despite calls from  emergency personnel to evacuate, Jankowski said such stubbornness and selfishness can actually lead to greater losses of life and property.

“If we have to leave other fires to rescue a family, you’re really putting your whole community at risk,” Jankowski said.

As fire chief, Jankowski is also concerned with reducing his department’s response or “turnout” times. “We can’t change the distance of the call — the distance to your home is a specific distance, we can only go so fast — but we can effect how fast we respond out of the station,” he said.

Toward that end, the department continues to refine its early warning system, which can alert and inform first responders as to the most advantageous and useful aid and equipment to bring to a particular emergency, like a utility truck to a mobile home park instead of a ladder truck that wouldn’t be able to handle the tight turns.

In 2016, fires cost La Verne residents and businesses more than $1 million in losses, which can put both residents and his firefighters at risk.

“The best fire for me is one that’s prevented,” Jankowski said.

Reputation at Stake

Currently, the La Verne Fire Department enjoys an outstanding reputation. It’s part of the reason why companies like Gilead have chosen to build and do business here. For a company that knows it can lose a half million dollars if its facility loses power for just a second, it welcomes the  expertise and professionalism that La Verne Fire can commit to its unique business and infrastructure.

But an ongoing dispute between Fire Chief Jankowski and the City and the La Verne Fire Association’s rank and file members threatens to make La Verne residents and businesses wonder what are they are paying for.

Throughout the dispute, the Association has maintained there has been no slippage in service.

“Please rest assured that we will continue to do our best to keep La Verne as safe as possible, even under these challenging conditions,” the Association states in its claim.

But again, taxpayers have to wonder that with so many distractions is the La Verne Fire Department, from top to bottom, still up to the job of saving lives and property and reducing risk through prevention.

Currently, the allegations are still just part of a tort claim. Claims can be reduced (make a bunch of allegations and see what sticks) and resolved with negotiation.  Maybe the professionals on both sides of the dispute can set aside or compartmentalize their differences and still meet their  obligations the way some successful, albeit feuding, sports teams have in the past. The New York Yankees owned by George Steinbrenner and managed by Billy Martin still won world championships in spite of themselves. As many professional teams have proved, unity is not a prerequisite for winning championships or doing your job.

But the present dispute could also be masking bigger issues. There has been talk, though not confirmed, that some La Verne Fire Department staff want to go county where the compensation is greater.

If so, it might cause city leaders, if not the public, to again raise the perennial election question, is it time to contract out the city’s fire services or at least have a dispassionate discussion on the subject?

City or County?

La Verne Online posed the question to the chief: “Would you welcome the debate?”

“I’ll just say that gets into a policy decision,” Jankowski said. “If policymakers decide to go to a different service, I will support that anyway I can.”

Jankowski added that in weighing the pros and cons, which he can lay out, policymakers have to decide what level of service they want the La Verne Fire Department to provide. “And that’s true for fire, police, water, garbage,” Jankowski said. “They could collect the garbage once a month and that would be a lot cheaper. Does the community want that? If you do, if you’re fine with stinky trash outside your house for 28 days, you’ll save money, 100 percent, I guarantee it.”

Jankowski said any financial calculations and comparisons would have to factor in reimbursements and other grants the City receives. By all accounts, Jankowski has been a good steward of the city’s finite resources.

“We don’t make frivolous expenses,” Jankowski said. “Every dollar we spend is approved by council and we take it very seriously.”

Then he drew another comparison about the city-county fire services debate that always seems to be brewing just below the surface in La Verne..

“There are people who like Costco and other people who only shop at Stater Brothers,” he said. “Both are fantastic, you just have to decide what you want. For some, cost will be the deciding factor, for others, the driving distance to either store will be most important.

“It’s the same with the fire department and La Verne. Some people want to go to Costco and have a big agency and contract services; other people want to a Stater Brothers feel. There are plusses and minuses with both. At Stater Brothers, you know the guy’s name behind the counter.

“My job is not to make those decisions,” he concluded, but to execute the wishes of the council and city manager.

For now, Chief Jankowski has bigger concerns keeping him up at night, like how he and his department on Christmas morning will be able to deliver Santa and thousands of bags of candy, fruit and peanuts to all those kids living on La Verne’s 943 streets.

Let Eddie’s Italian Eatery fire up some great food and specials for you over the holidays!

9 Responses to “UNDER FIRE: La Verne Fire Department Battles Its Own Blaze”

  1. Sleepless nights over giving out nuts and candy nobody wants!!?? Please how about sleepless nights about keeping me and my kids safe!!!

  2. Martin Chavez, you may not enjoy what the fire department does on Christmas morning but as for me as a resident of this city I enjoy it and look forward to what they do. There is a lot of hard work and time put into this event, may I suggest if you do not like what they give out, then participate on Christmas morning.
    I think the fire department is doing a great job for our city.
    Keep up the great work!

  3. Correction, there is a lot of hard work and time that goes into this event.
    If you don’t like what they give out then don’t participate on Christmas morning.

  4. Nancy — I enjoy seeing Santa on a fire truck for the 27 years I’ve been living in La Verne as well as the excitement it brought my kids. If you would take the time to actually READ what I said, I rather the Fire Chief have sleepless nights over our SAFETY than nuts and candy. Afterall he is the La Verne Fire Chief, not the North Pole Fire Chief.

  5. As a new resident I see the need for community out reach and a sense of neighborhood here in la Verne that is not seen in other communities in the area. Mr. Chavez, why after 27 years of being a resident, why do you allow a statement from a journalist lead you to believe that the Fire Chief has his priorities placed in the wrong direction ? Just asking ? Have you seen response times and the amount of personnel that are in our neighboring cities ? If the Fire Chief can handle all of that and still find the time to bring a little bit of Holiday Cheer to the community, I would say that Maybe you should see our neighboring cities are doing for the children on Christmas morning. The statement that has you upset is an opinion of the journalist. Btw … Merry Christmas Mr. Chavez. Have a great day as well.

  6. Richard/ it amazes me how people care more about a man in costume riding on a fire truck than our personal safety! Talk about having your priorities mixed up, wow!

    It is not the City of La Verne, Police, Fire, Public Works or ANY city entity to use our tax dollars to fund and spend their time on the clock to make sure we have a Christmas. That is NOT what their job or my taxes dollars are for.

    If they can spend this waste of tax dollars on this, cut my paramedic service fee, cut my utility user tax.

    Do what their job is, public safety.

  7. I have 100% confidence in La Verne FD in that they will protect my property and family. It is my hope that the inter-department issues get resolved soon to maintain the reputation and service level of this fine organization.

  8. Trust me when I tell you these guys work many long sleepless nights between all the calls that come in. Their service is still top notch and in my opinion, one of the best in the State.

  9. Amen Rick and Cory!

    The 2x we had to call them and any neighbors are akways impressed with the service they provide as well the police department. You definitely don’t get the level or compassion care and service in most other cities that these guys have.

    For them to actually take a vote of having no confidence in the Fire Chief because of out dated or inadequate equipment should really be a wake up call that something’s not right and the rank and file are just speaking up and bringing our attention to the fact the Chief isn’t worried about those issues (but more about Christmas).

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