Earlier this week, I weighed in on my assessment for the future of the shared management agreement for the Davis and UC Davis fire departments. I said that it could go either way at this point, but clearly July 1, 2015, is going to be a critical date when the agreement will either automatically renew and extend to December 31, 2016, or the agreement will end on January 1, 2016.
I get that it looks like I’m hedging my bets, but it also reflects the reality of the situation right now. I believe that currently there are three council votes to keep the agreement in place. That belief is based on personal discussions with three of the members of the Davis City Council.
The letter from Senior Associate Vice Chancellor Karl Mohr and former interim City Manager Gene Rogers demonstrates the commitment that the university had to maintaining the agreement. In that letter, they noted, “The City and the University have and will continue to assess the value and efficacy of the Agreement. Chief Trauernicht presents quarterly reports to the Davis City Council and monthly briefings to both the University and City Fire Departments.”
They pushed back against the request Bobby Weist, Davis firefighters’ union president, had for an independent audit, stating, “We do not believe an audit of the Agreement is necessary or appropriate at this time.”
Mr. Weist even offered to pay for the audit, which is very suggestive of the advantage he believes he would gain.
But most importantly, UC Davis believes the agreement is working. And the reports released by Chief Nathan Trauernicht early last week show that, in fact, the reforms have been a tremendous success.
In 2013, the Davis City Council approved a series of reforms on the operations of the fire department. First, they reduced response time requirements from the unrealistic five minutes to six minutes for fire, putting the Davis policy more in line with reality as well as the practices in other departments.
Second, the council passed the boundary drop to allow the closest available unit to be first responder on an emergency call regardless of which department and whether the call was at UC Davis or the city. Prior to that, city engines had to be the first responder to calls in the city and UC Davis to the university, regardless of which unit was closest.
Third, the city reduced staffing from 12 to 11, but at the same time, decoupled the rescue apparatus from the fire engine at the central fire station. This was designed to allow the rescue apparatus to respond to calls alone or join the other station’s engine in calls, leaving the engine to cover central Davis and reduce situations when the fire engines on the periphery had to leave their stations to cover central Davis.
Finally, the city council entered in a joint agreement with UC Davis to put both fire stations under the same management structure.
The last two reforms, both eventually passing 3-2, were most controversial. The firefighters’ union in Davis pushed back against the staffing change, arguing that reduction in personnel would mean that, in emergency fire situations, entry would be delayed and therefore property would incur more damage and there was the potential for loss of life.
They pushed back even harder against shared management, and enlisted the help of Democratic elected officials to write two letters to the city and university to oppose the agreement.
The data emerging now show that the reforms, rather than making residents less safe, have actually greatly improved safety in the city. Last year, from September 2012 until August 2013, in a typical month Station 32 and Station 33 had essentially been uncovered between 20 and 40 times per month.
That means that areas of west and east Davis, if they had an emergency, were looking at far longer before an engine that had been moved to the central fire station on Third and E Street could travel back into the areas on the eastern and western portions of the town.
In critical situations people might have to wait three, four, or five extra minutes. This wasn’t just a few times per month, this was daily for long periods of time during the day.
The data above show that since the reforms were enacted in September 2013, the number of “move and cover assignments” has fallen to, in most cases, less than five times a month in total.
That is really strong evidence that people are safer and will get much faster response than they were receiving previously – despite the scare tactics by the firefighters’ union. I was once told that it seemed that the station layout and response rules were designed to be inefficient in hopes of convincing the city to build a fourth fire station.
Despite this success, the reforms remain tenuous. As we reported last week, the firefighters are engaging in a work slowdown. Last week we presented the data that show that the Davis firefighters were reducing their ongoing training, but it actually goes way beyond just training.
We have heard that firefighters are basically doing the absolute minimum and either dropping every project or doing the minimum required of the work. For example, for the training consortium, firefighters in Davis have been discouraged by the union from participating or taking classes. When they do take the classes anyway, they end up being ostracized and retaliated against.
So, if the program is working, why am I questioning its continuation? There is a tremendous amount of political pressure being applied here. Bobby Weist got assistance from Lou Paulson, the president of the statewide union. They have been putting pressure on the university to withdraw from the shared services agreement.
They have gone so far as to threaten legislation that would prohibit the shared services agreement with UC. Now, at this point that’s unlikely – even if they had the votes to get it through the legislature, it is doubtful Governor Brown would sign it.
Back in January, Chief Trauernicht was the president of the California Fire Chiefs Association. The minutes for that meeting reflected a discussion of the shared services agreement. The minutes note, “These and other legislative matters that may be forthcoming could create an awkward position with other organizations and the UC system.”
Chief Trauernicht is no longer president of that association, having left after just one year.
Everyone makes the assumption that, given the data showing the reform’s success, the council will remain solidly behind the agreement. While that might be true, there are other access points that the union has to undermine the agreement and, at some point, our UC Davis partners might reach the conclusion that this agreement is more trouble than its worth.
We are often told that our fire department provides excellent service. People who have been saved or helped by the firefighters undoubtedly and understandably are grateful.
But there is another side to this. Last night, on another subject, the point was made that people are often willing to accept their own anecdotal experiences over scientific evidence that suggests the contrary. While we can cite many great success stories, many people have told the Vanguard that the Davis Fire Department is actually well behind other jurisdictions in training and techniques, and that this has been done by design to keep the union leadership in power.
The bottom line is that the lack of training should be a red flag to this community that we might not be getting the great service that we have been led to believe we are getting. We seem to have gotten away with this for a number of years, but perhaps that is more a reflection of the relatively new buildings, high safety standards and affluent population than the outstanding work of the fire service.
The residents should demand more of our firefighters than to engage in work slowdowns that could end up endangering lives. And they should demand more than the elevation of politics over proven policy success.
—David M. Greenwald reporting