Every firefighter fears the nightmare scenario called “flashover.” Flashover will occur between seven and nine minutes after a fire starts. When contained to a single room, a fire will send up a layer of smoke that begins to coat the ceiling and act as an insulator. As the room temperature increases, everything inside—furniture, picture frames, children’s toys—will begin to cook at a temperature that can reach as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s at this point, Fire Captain Jeff Welch says, the room and every object within the walls will spontaneously combust.
“If you’re in that room when that happens,” he says, “it’s not survivable.”

To protect themselves, as soon as firefighters arrive on the scene, a checklist must be completed. The first thing they do when arriving at a fire is to provide ventilation by cutting through a wall or roof with an axe or chain saw, or by breaking out a window. “It’s not fires that kill,” Welch says, it’s smoke and carbon monoxide.”

Next, entry and exit points are forced open and gas and electrical utilities are shut down. As firefighters work on the outside to identify water sources and put hoses into position to battle the blaze and protect stairways and exit points, at least two must enter the burning building to search for survivors.

While this is going on, firefighters on the outside attempt to keep the fire at its origin while monitoring the firefighters inside in case they need help. All of this is routine, and it must all happen in a matter of minutes.

“Saturday I was up five times after midnight doing emergency calls,” says Welch, who also serves as president of the San Jose firefighters union Local 230. “I’m talking from experience when I talk about ground operations.”

Things have come a long way for the firefighters union in 12 months, and Welch’s role can’t be overstated. A year ago, Local 230 was the lone bargaining group unable to agree on compensation concessions with the city. Forty-nine firefighters were laid off as a result.

A year later, the firefighters union may be at the vanguard, leading the way for the city’s 10 other unions. Last Thursday, Welch and his team put forward a proposal that would drop firefighters per engine from five to four, and cut total compensation for 647 firefighters by 10 percent—making Local 230 the first public employees’ union to come to a deal with the city. Less than 24 hours later, five other city unions offered a similar proposal. Over a three-day voting period that ended Monday, 95 percent of Local 230’s members approved the deal. .

Welch was vice president of Local 230 last year and took over as president following the retirement of longtime veteran Randy Sekany. Alex Gurza, the city’s lead negotiator, describes the resulting difference in the union’s attitude at the bargaining table as “remarkable” and “drastic.”

“I think that makes a big difference if we’re all working toward solving the same problem,” Gurza says.
Last year, Sekany took a hard-line stance that left firefighters and the city at a stalemate. Officials on both sides admit negotiations were hampered by years of bad blood.

Sekany’s strategy was the scare tactic: He issued numerous statements warning that the inevitable cuts would result in slower response times, which meant property loss and death. In the midst of negotiations, Sekany stunned observers by proposing an alternative budget for the city, which included perplexing line-item cuts such as hybrid cars and ergonomic chairs.

In the end, the city reached a compromise with only one group of sworn officers—the Police Officers Association.

With conservative estimates putting the city $105 million in the hole this year, there was no time for Welch to waste after taking over.

“Recognizing there are major issues and we have to work together,” Welch says, “I made a personal effort to hit a reset button with the city leaders to find a solution.”

Gurza says he’s happy, and somewhat shocked. “If you would have asked me last week if I would have an agreement with the firefighters,” he says, “I would have said ‘that’s not going to happen.’”

While major issues remain to be negotiated—pension reform, sick leave payouts, a federal grant that would inject $15 million into the department but limit the city’s ability to make cuts in the future—Welch says his constituency is well aware that local sentiment has turned against public employees. When a list of top city employee salaries was published last month, critics howled over the pay of top officials, including retiring Fire Chief Darryl Von Raesfeld, who came it at No. 2. His $430,000 included more than $310,000 in accrued sick leave.

“The pulse of the membership was getting to where we needed to do something and do it fast,” Welch says, acknowledging that it was reprehensible that Von Raesfeld’s sick leave payouts, accumulated over an entire career, were all calculated using his wage as chief—not adjusted for the positions he held.

“In my opinion he wasn’t a good fire chief,” says Fire Capt. Glen McGuire, a veteran of more than 20 years at Company No. 3 downtown. “I think he sold us out a lot of different ways. He straight up told everyone, ‘I’ve always wanted a Maserati and I’m going to go buy one with cash from my sick leave payout.’ Really? You really need to advertise that stuff?

“That’s not the norm. The majority of firefighters raise kids, take care of their wives and pay the bills.”

Not coming forward with a compromise quickly, Welch says, would have jeopardized more firefighters’ jobs, which would put the public—as well as those within the ranks—at greater risk. According to safety standards, the minimum crew for a city of San Jose’s size is four men per engine. The “two in, two out” rule states that firefighters must enter a burning building as a pair, while another pair is covering the checklist outside. “We need to make concessions not only to keep the public safe but ourselves safe,” Welch says.

But just because an agreement is in place and the tone of future negotiations seems positive, that doesn’t mean firefighters and city employees will escape the axe.

According to Gurza and Budget Director Jennifer Maguire, no promises are being made. If every union were to agree to Reed’s suggested 10 percent cut, which would amount to $38 million in savings, the city would still be left with a $67 million shortfall. Disbanding San Jose’s Redevelopment Agency, according to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan, would tack on an additional $10 $35 million to the deficit.

“It’s almost unimaginable from my perspective,” says Maguire, who has worked in the city manager’s budget office for 20 years. “At this point it’s hard to make these cuts not noticeable to the community. It’s really sad.”

It seems this sobering realization, bitter on all sides, is settling in for the first time in years.