Oaklanders received some good news this morning: the fire department will avoid painful service cuts thanks to a major federal grant.
The mayor, fire department leaders, and several council members gathered at Fire Station No. 5 on 34th Street to announce that Oakland Fire Department will not have to brown out—or temporarily suspend—an existing engine, as was originally proposed in Mayor Sheng Thao’s budget for 2023-2025. Thao proposed cuts across all city departments to zero out a historic $360 million deficit in the city’s general fund.
Thao’s proposed budget avoids layoffs, but many residents and community leaders expressed concern about the impact on OFD, which would have had to suspend an engine on a rotating basis. This would have potentially slowed the department’s response to fires and other emergencies and forced exhausted firefighters to put in more overtime.
Fire department stats at a glance
Total budget over last two years: Over $392 million
Proposed budget over the next two years: Over $451 million
Size of department: About 700 employees
Total number of firefighters: About 500
Calls for service last year: 67,638
Last month, officials expressed cautious hope that the department would be able to avoid these cuts after it was awarded $27.4 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, or “SAFER,” covers the cost of hiring 35 new firefighters and paying for their salaries and benefits over three years.
Today, Thao affirmed that hope and praised the department for securing the grant, noting that Oakland is about to enter fire season when robust emergency services are most in need.
“By amending this budget to restore the vital services, the department can continue to respond not only to fires but also emergency medical incidents throughout our communities,” Thao said.
Calling it a “wonderful day for Oakland,” Fire Chief Reginald Freeman said the grant will play a critical role in keeping the fire department fully staffed. The funds will also help alleviate the burden of mandatory overtime, he added. The department is chronically short-staffed due to injuries, training, vacations, and other factors. This forces the department to use overtime to meet its minimum staffing levels each shift. For instance, the department budgeted for spending $13 million on overtime over a certain time period last year, but it ended up spending $16 million.
Freeman thanked members of his department and the council for helping write and review the grant. Freeman also expressed gratitude to Thao, who he said was critically involved in the grant writing process while she was still a Councilmember. Freeman said after Thao became mayor, she promised not to suspend an engine as part of the upcoming budget cuts if he found the money elsewhere.
“I just want to thank you, Madame Mayor, for keeping your word and taking care of not only the Oakland residents but also the Oakland Fire Department,” Freeman said.
A positive note to end a career on
Thursday’s press conference also marked a goodbye for Freeman, who announced his retirement last month. Tomorrow is his last day of service. Thao, Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, and Councilmembers Carroll Fife and Dan Kalb lauded Freeman for his two years of leadership over the department.
“I want to thank Chief Freeman for your outstanding work—you have been amazing,” Bas said. “I have been so impressed by your dedication, your creativity, and your hard work on behalf of our firefighters and the entire city of Oakland.”
Freeman joined the Oakland Fire Department in 2021 from Hartford, Connecticut. During his tenure, Freeman opposed a plan to narrow some city roads to make them safer for cyclists but tougher for engines to respond to emergencies. His department also responded to a number of suspicious fires near the westbound I-580 between 35th Avenue and Coolidge Avenue and put out a fire that destroyed the historic First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Under his watch, OFD launched the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program, which has civilians respond to some nonemergency 911 calls.
Oakland’s new City Administrator, Jestin Johnson, took his first official action on Thursday by announcing Damon Covington as the interim fire chief. Last month, Oakland officials said they will launch a search for a permanent replacement for Freeman.
Covington most recently served as Deputy Chief of Fire Operations for OFD. Covington joined the department in 2001 and has worked as a firefighter/paramedic, Engineer, Lieutenant, Captain, and Battalion Chief. He served as President of the Oakland Black Firefighters Association from 2016 through 2022.
Covington applauded Freeman for giving the department a “master class in leadership” and changing the trajectory of OFD for the better.
“He’s left us a template on how we can lead and create leadership in our department, so we’ll never have to go outside for leadership in the future,” Covington said.