The City Council voted Tuesday night to authorize staff to move forward with a plan to implement the first phase of the pilot project. The plan also calls for a shared fire dispatch center; a restructuring of administrative support functions; and standardized training, policies and procedures, according to a release from the city of Davis.
Under the plan, Bill Weisgerber, interim chief of the city Fire Department, would become interim chief of both departments, reporting jointly to Meyer and City Manager Bill Emlen. The city and university would contribute equally to his $149,316 annual salary.
“The goal of this pilot consolidation is to provide the best fire services possible given available resources,” said Bill Emlen in a release from the city of Davis, who noted the agreement is part of a national trend to merge fire departments. “The consolidation will eliminate redundancy and duplication of effort, provide opportunities for cost savings and enhance the level of service for both campus and city.”
John Meyer, himself a former City Manager for the City of Davis, who is responsible for the campus Fire Department as vice chancellor of Administrative and Resource Management, added: “We aim to build on the longstanding cooperation of the two fire departments to best serve the people who depend on our local fire services.”
Mr. Emlen and Mr. Meyer estimate that sharing a chief will save UC Davis $110,000 a year and the city about $140,000 a year. The consolidation plan calls for these savings to be reinvested into fire operations.
The release provides additional information:
The two-year city-university agreement would take effect as soon as Sept. 1 and would be renewable for one-year terms. Under its provisions:
- In addition to the fire chief position, the two departments would share an assistant chief, a training chief, and an operations chief.
- All other personnel would continue to be employees of their home departments, and their collective bargaining agreements would remain in effect.
- Fire calls on the Davis campus, now dispatched through a campus facility that also serves the campus Police Department, eventually would be dispatched through the city’s public safety dispatch center to improve emergency dispatch and response coordination. (The Sacramento campus of UC Davis is served by the Sacramento Fire Department.)
- Ultimately, crews and equipment would be dispatched based on proximity and availability rather than by city and campus boundaries.
- The departments would implement standardized operating guidelines, training, and policies and procedures, and look at joint purchasing to save money.
According to the city’s release, for years, the city and university have shared the weekly rotation of a duty chief to respond to first-alarm or greater emergencies, and the fire departments have provided mutual aid for major incidents. Although the departments have explored ways to further increase cooperation, possibilities were limited by an assumption that separate management structures had to be maintained.
In 2009, when the chiefs of both departments announced their retirements, the city and university seized the opportunity to explore a new model for managing fire services. The City Council concurred with city staff’s recommendation to participate with the university in seeking consulting services to advise on next steps for a more extensive consolidation of the two fire departments.
The city Fire Department, which has an annual budget of $9.69 million, 45 firefighters and three fire stations, responded to almost 4,169 calls for service in 2009. The campus Fire Department, which has an annual budget of $3.95 million, 20 firefighters and one fire station, responded to 939 calls.
The city and UC Davis will continue to be responsible for their own fire prevention activities.
The report argued against moving from four firefighter crews to three firefighter crews, which is a move most cities are down to, both out of fiscal necessity but also due to the fact that under most conditions fire crews do not need four firefighters, and when they do, they can quickly assemble such crews.
Citygate is a consultant company that advises cities about staffing issues. But it should be pointed out that Citygate is run by ex-firefighters.
They argued that fielding three, 3-firefighter crews would be a “noticeable reduction in service.” But would it? They argue that it means that the first unit has to wait for the second unit to arrive before entering a structure well involved in fire. But they failed to cite the number of times a fire crew had to enter a structure in a given year. Turns out rarely if ever.
“To provide both the speed and weight of the attack, the report continues, and to lessen the need for two units to respond to a modest call,” the report continues, “fielding three 4-firefighter crews is a very effective strategy, given the unusual amount of simultaneous incidents and widely spaced stations.” But would firefighters typically have to do a building entry in a fire that is modest and would not require a second unit? That seems unlikely.
Given their assessment Davis needs more than 12 firefighters on-duty, but instead of arguing for a fourth fire station, they argue 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.”
If they do that, they argue that “for the foreseeable future there is no need to build an additional station in Northern Davis until there is significant growth in that area.”
Right there was the genesis of the merger. What is interesting is that they were talking about mutual aid agreements rather than merger. The city came up with the idea for merger by itself.
All of this information is a refresher for those who have been reading this site for awhile. But the important point to make is that while the city cites a $110,000 annual savings from the merger, a modest total, the true savings is a lot more because it avoids the necessity of a fourth fire station. That was listed as an unmet need and that is now taken completely off the table for the conceivable future.
The next step and this is part of what concerns me is consolidating the entire leadership structure of both departments. How will that be achieved? Will they incorporate the battalion chief model that the city has been pushing for.
On the other hand, on Tuesday I had an interesting discussion with the interim Chief at UC Davis and he mentioned that across the state there are mergers of fire services including Fairfield and Dixon. That leads to the question as to whether we might see the possibility of a merger with Woodland or even countywide with Woodland and West Sacramento. Certainly Woodland which has stations only seven minutes away from North Davis might be an additional avenue to explore. Woodland has its own problems fiscally and perhaps joint operations and a single chief and command structure, might benefit both departments.
In the end, any money saved here is a good thing but the big money still comes from a disproportionate compensation system, overtime structure, and four firefighter team engines. That is where we really need to look long and hard. As I mentioned previously, Davis is one of the few cities that has remained with four man teams. And yet, due to our building codes and geography, we rarely have the type of fires that would really necessitate building entries. According to our records, less than three building entries per year.
If that is indeed the case, perhaps there are alternative scenarios that would allow a three man team to enter a building quickly. First, looking at response times, the second fire station is rarely more than two minutes away. Second, we could train police officers in an emergency situation to be the fourth person to assist firefighters until the second engine arrives. We are talking about three incidents a year that require entry and yet we are paying for an extra staff person at each station, meaning three extra staff people the entire year for three incidents. Is that really the best use of resources in a time when we desperately need to reduce spending?
These are all issues that we need to continue to work on. However, I will applaud the City of Davis and UC Davis for moving forward with the needed consolidation and urge the council and city to look toward more innovations to save us additional money.
—David M. Greenwald reporting