Fire Policies Aimed at Fourth Fire Station Endangered the Public – It was not a complete shock when yesterday’s column on fire staffing and calls for service was met with a post by a retired firefighter that represented a veiled threat to myself and the Vanguard. After all, it was the summer of 2011 when the Vanguard learned that the firefighters were boycotting the Westlake Market due to their advertising on the Vanguard.
In 2008 when I spoke out against the firefighters during the city council campaign, my wife, who was running for council at the time, dared to call 3% at 50 unsustainable. The union president, Bobby Weist, we would learn, responded by trying to get my wife and some others fired from their jobs.
In the last few days, I have received documented evidence of intimidation tactics and outright threats given to those who have dared to speak out. When people’s livelihood is threatened due to differences in opinion, we have reached the stage where civil debate and indeed our entire system of public discourse breaks down.
It was just a year ago that the Vanguard received a less-redacted version of the four-year-old Aaronson Davis Fire Report. The report was commissioned by the city of Davis following a June 2008 Yolo County Grand Jury report that issued findings against the Davis Fire Department. While the media and public focused on the sensational headlines of drunken firefighters sleeping overnight at the fire station, it was charges of union cronyism, favoritism, preferential treatment, hostile work environment and retaliation that exposed deep problems throughout city governance.
The Davis City Council in December 2008, in one of the most egregious examples of cronyism and political favoritism, voted by a 3-2 margin, with Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek dissenting, not even to allow themselves to read the report.
The Vanguard would sue and finally, in a settled agreement, the city agreed to release new portions of that report, including a portion that demonstrated that union President Bobby Weist was promoted by Former Fire Chief Rose Conroy instead of “at least one of the candidates [who] was demonstrably and significantly more qualified for and deserving of the promotion than [Bobby Weist] promoted by Chief Conroy.”
Investigator and City of Davis Ombudsman Robert Aaronson wrote that, while no one questions Mr. Weist’s skills or abilities, “a significant number of firefighters, including some who were not otherwise disgruntled, believed that one particular candidate was far more deserving than Bobby Weist – the individual who finished fourth and first and in the second tier (in the assessment center the division chiefs’ interviews and the chiefs final ranking, respectively).”
More critically, however, is that the report, which is still nearly half blacked out from public reading, contains an entire section entitled, “Retaliation and hostile work environment allegations against Chief Conroy.” This had been previously redacted, along with the statement by Mr. Aaronson, “The disgruntled employees all professed to fear of retaliation for speaking out about organizational issues, particularly the role that favoritism seemed to play in punishing them.”
After SEVERAL PAGES OF CONTINUED REDACTION, Mr. Aaronson wrote, “There may or may not be provable instances of retaliation… There is a single instance of claimed favoritism about which I have gathered some telling information.”
He added, “It is concerning to me that there is a minority of employees… who fear retaliation from Chief Conroy.” He concluded from this information “that the number of people with this fear is significantly higher than the ones who were willing to admit it to me.”
The Vanguard has heard reports that a minority of firefighters continue to be harassed and retaliated against for their opposition to certain policies. When the council failed to act in early March, it simply acted to prolong the agony for those employees.
In the due course of these debates and discussion, we inevitably hear the separation between the job of the firefighters to advocate for their pay and benefits on the one hand and perform their jobs protecting the public. While bad behavior has been called out by those such as the auditor Bob Aaronson in his 2008 report, great pains have been taken to tell the public that the job they perform is exemplary.
Mr. Aaronson went out of his way in his report to praise the overall work of Chief Conroy, Captain Weist, and the rest of the Davis firefighters.
What we have seen now and, more importantly, can document is a pattern of behavior that is vicious, retaliatory and, most of all, petty. At some point the question needs to be asked as to why the community should be willing to entrust public safety policy to ones who have shown themselves to be vicious and nasty to people who even modestly question their policy objectives.
Worse yet is that we actually now have evidence that the firefighters, who have attempted to rally the public, arguing that their first priority is public safety, have for the last twenty years fought policies that would have made the public more safe.
As the Vanguard reported over the weekend, a series of policy decisions were made by the Davis firefighters to make their response system less efficient and effective. We can never know if people’s lives were actually placed into jeopardy by these policy decisions, but we can at the very least determine that the firefighters implemented policies that were poorly considered and put the public at risk.
The idea of the boundary drop is about 20 years old. According to sources familiar with the situation, the policy was never implemented because Bobby Weist and the Davis firefighters did not want it. We now know why.
Chief Scott Kenley noted in his audit report, “It is somewhat baffling that as early as 1993, the parties have received information and/or agreed that it makes sense to drop the boundaries between the agencies, yet to date, the UC Davis Engine at their headquarters station is not included in any first alarm response within the Davis City limits.”
Chief Kenley did not account for opposition from the union, and now we have to suspect Chief Rose Conroy herself.
“We moved in the correct direction when UC Fire signed an agreement with the City of Davis for dispatching. However, as stated above, we have not moved towards closest unit response,” a source told the Vanguard.
Last fall, the Vanguard was told that one of the reasons that this change has not occurred is that Bobby Weist is dead set against it, apparently viewing a UC Davis fire response to calls within the city as taking away work from his own membership.
But new evidence suggests it goes deeper than that. It goes to the heart of Chief Rose Conroy and Union President Bobby Weist setting policies to help convince policymakers in city government and on the council to implement a fourth fire station.
The impact of this policy is critical to understand. As our analysis shows, whenever Station 31 is on a call, Stations 32 and 33 spend a considerable amount of time responding to calls from Station 31.
Simply put, had the UC Davis fire station been able to respond to first alarm calls, there would have been far fewer of the 262 times that Station 32 left its area uncovered to cover Station 31, and far fewer of the 345 times Station 33 came into Station 31’s district.
During those times, huge areas of the town were left uncovered, and fires and medical emergencies had delayed response times.
Analysis shows that using Station 34 could have virtually eliminated this problem of simultaneous calls, but for the firefighters public safety was not of first importance. Rather, making the case for a fourth fire station dominated consideration.
But it was not just boundary drop. Other policies we have shown made just as critical an impact. Under Rose Conroy came the policy that the rescue apparatus was tied to Engine 31. That decision was compounded by the rule that the Station 31 rescue vehicle responds to all auto accidents, even if the accident is not in Station 31 area.
This problem could easily have been solved by uncoupling the rescue vehicle from the engine. This is part of the plan that former interim Chief Scott Kenley devised, where there would be three firefighters on the engine and two on the rescue apparatus, increasing the number of available firefighters at the central fire station from 4 to 5.
However, Chief Conroy, even though they had an excess of fire personnel up until the economic crisis, refused to allow the decoupling of the rescue vehicle, it seems, in part because it would help eliminate the problem of simultaneous calls and thereby undermine the case for a fourth fire station.
The policy was so strict that the fire engine was not allowed to go back into service when a medical emergency required one of the firefighters to stay with the ambulance until it arrives at the hospital.
In these cases, when Engine 31 was down to three on an engine, Chief Conroy’s policy would not allow them to respond to calls – because she felt that less than a four-man crew was not safe for a fire call. But of course, she also didn’t let them respond to medical calls either.
This policy has been recently changed so that the Engine 31 can now respond with a three-person crew to medical calls so that an entire unit is not taken off line for periods of time, throwing the entire system into chaos.
It appears that none of this was accidental, that it was known at the time that the current policies were actually leaving wide swaths of the public exposed to potential emergencies, with emergency personnel effectively out of place.
And, of course, the current plan fixes most of those problems – and so even though it calls for one fewer firefighter on each shift, the public under the Kenley plan will actually be far safer. The firefighters have responded with a public education campaign, designed to scare the hell out of the public.
The reality is that the public should be scared that politics, both on the part of the firefighters as well as past city councils, actually exposed the public to undue risk. We can only hope that no one lost a life because we intentionally constructed a system that was ineffective and inefficient, hoping to convince the councils of the past to incur the expense of a new fire station and, more importantly, 12 more firefighters.
—David M. Greenwald reporting