Their findings agreed that Davis needs more than 12 firefighters on-duty. However, the report concludes that “In the combined developed area of Davis and UCD, four fire stations staffed with a total of 15 firefighters on duty are wholly adequate to cover the entire area, if deployed as one system.” Therefore, for the foreseeable future there is no need to build an additional station in North Davis.
The result of this perfect storm is that very serious talks are underway between the city of Davis’ fire department and UC Davis’ fire department about merging the two department.
Although Bill Emlen, cautioned not to think about it as a merger just yet. The City Manager told the Vanguard, “I would hate to call it a merger at this point, we’re talking about different ways that the city and the university could share resources.”
What we are talking about is anything from a more formal version of current mutual aid, automatic aid provisions to a full merger. He said, “It could be a JPA kind of thing. We’re just not sure yet where that ends up. I don’t want to say merger per se because that’s something that’s still a work in progress in terms of where we would actually land.”
In February, retired Davis Fire Chief Rose Conroy finally left the department and the city has recently brought on Retired Chief Bill Weisgerber to serve as interim chief. According to Mr. Emlen, Chief Weisgerber’s experience and background has been a big factor in making this happen.
Chief Weisgerber told that the Vanguard that along with his counterpart at the university, he has been tasked at looking at elements about merging the two departments into one. The opportunity he said exists with some of the retirements to see if there’s an ability to create a single organization out of the two departments.
“It looks like a prime opportunity to look into making one department,” he said. “We’ve been looking at some organizational charts, looking at some cost analyses to see if we can create one organization.”
One such option would be a single organization and command structure. “When you look at the organizational needs of the city and the organizational needs of the university, one option could possibly be a single-command structure for the two organizations.”
There are some models of merger out there. “There’s models out there, Livermore-Pleasanton, and that type of thing,” he said, but at the same time he acknowledged merger a municipal fire department with that of a UC was a rather unique undertaking. “. There’s myriad possibilities for this type of situation and this one in Davis is pretty unique in the fact that typically you don’t see an organization like the city of Davis and a UC entity, like our university, combining services like this.”
As he explained the governance structures in the two are very different. “The university operates in a completely different universe of governance than does the city,” he said. “We’re considering all of those things and it’s not an easy task to do. When you have one station at the University and three stations in the city, and they have a lot of interagency response matrices, it just kind of makes sense to take a look to see if you can make it into one department.”
Still there is no set outcome yet, as they look at a spectrum of possibilities from a simple functional consolidation of management structure to a full consolidation of both departments into one.
He said from an operational standpoint, it is probably a relatively simple change simply because they already work together right now. “It would just be a matter of smoothing out basic procedures unifying and coordinating the training to one training manual, one response and operational manual” he said. “Right now there are slight differences and differences in staffing but those are not insurmountable.”
Any time you put to organizations together you have to deal with some issues to create consistency, however at the same time he said, “firefighting has some basic fundamental tenets to them that remain constant. So it’s working out the details and nuances that are similar in these organizations.”
Right now is a huge window of opportunity from the standpoint of looking for cost savings, but also in terms of personnel. Both departments have had their chiefs recently retire. But it goes beyond that.
“The opportunity goes beyond just the fire chief, the fire marshal is retired in Davis, the operations chief is retired in Davis, so while the positions are there, there is not a person occupying those positions,” Chief Bill Weisgerber told the Vanguard.
That gives both departments an opportunity to look at redundancy without look at laying off existing personnel.
“All the discussions both inside the department and outside the department, center on the fact that those vacancies present the prime opportunity because you don’t have to do a lot of realigning of personnel positions. You have the opportunity to realign positions that are vacant right now.”
In fact, the merger is helping to drive the timeline for finding a permanent Chief in Davis. Bill Emlen pointed out, “We’re trying to keep positions open right now in case there is an alignment of the stars and we come up with a model that we all think can work.”
Mr. Emlen continued that for now he’s holding off the process of finding a new chief, “At some point I need to get the process started to bring in a new permanent chief and I’m holding that off in deference to this process. I don’t want to fill a position if in the end we come up with a model where we’re sharing one.”
Mr. Emlen was unclear as to how long this process could take. He said he would have a better sense in a few weeks. However, given the vacancy at chief, he hopes that the process will not take more than three to four months.
“My hope is that we can have in a couple of months as to whether this has legs or not, and then we’ll make those decisions at that point,” he said. “Clearly if we see that this is a real option, we’ll do what it takes to take the next steps to get there.”
Not having a permanent chief has not presented a problem just yet, “So far so good, we’ve been able to cover our resource needs for now,” Mr. Emlen said. “We’ll need permanent leadership in the very near future. We’ve been concerned about that. But I think Bill is providing as an interim a real good bridge, it could be more awkward if we didn’t have that kind of circumstance.”
One big question remains and that is whether the rank and file and in particular the union will buy into this process. The Vanguard has received some indications that the Davis fire union is leery if not outright opposed to the process. However, both City Manager Emlen and Chief Weisgerber remain optimistic.
Said Bill Emlen, “They [the union] haven’t said whether they are for or against it. They want to be part of the discussion as we move forward.”
He continued, “The way I would describe it is that they have a wary eye on all of this. I have not had anyone come to me and say that we’re opposed to it.”
According to Chief Weisgerber, so far so good. As the process moves along, he briefs the labor groups and gets their feedback and in put. “I have seen no indication of resistance, everyone is very interested to see what the model is going to look like, but it’s too early to start talking about that,” he said.
“So far it’s been a very cooperative, energetic effort, with everyone playing an interested role,” he continued. “I have seen no indication that there’s resistance or opposition, but like I said it’s very early in the program, all aspects of this are at a preliminary stage. But everyone’s been cooperating, it’s been very ecumenical, and we’re moving forward.”
Chief Weisberg is optimistic for success. “I’m very optimistic because the situation presents a very robust opportunity. But, I guess I’ll say I’m very cautiously. I think it has a very high likelihood of success, a high probability for success.”
Still this is a large task and it remains in the early stages of discussion. Nevertheless, given the economic necessities, and the cost savings to be gained from sharing leadership positions, it seems that the time is the right one for such discussions. The Vanguard will continue to monitor this developing process and provides updates as they become available.
—David M. Greenwald reporting