Sunday Commentary: Shared Management, Fire Reforms Are Working, So Why So Worried?

Friends of Davis Fire
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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.

Fire-September-10

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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Shared Management, Fire Reforms Are Working, So Why So Worried?”

  1. Tia Will

    the point was made that people are often willing to accept their own anecdotal experiences over scientific evidence that suggests the contrary.”

    Doctors see this phenomenon daily in our practices. Patient’s frequently give more weight to their friend’s experience with a given form of birth control than they do to data representing the experience of thousands of women over many years. We also see that a negative anecdote far outweighs a neutral or positive experience in people’s minds. Another bias which can affect people’s decision making is that fear that something bad ( often not even specified) will happen outweighs their perception of the benefit to be gained. If this biases had no ill effects, it would not matter. However, in the field of medicine, these misperceptions of risk and benefit based on anecdote and fear over evidence and accurate risk/benefit assessment can be very costly in terms of one’s health.

    I believe that these same kinds of misperception can adversely affect the over all health of our community. If we allow emotionalism or misguided loyalty to over ride evidence based decision making we run the risks of having a less proficient, less effective system of public safety. Based on the evidence presented to date, I am a strong supporter of the shared services agreement.

    Having said this, I am aware of the need for ongoing re-evaluation of the data as new information is obtained. If Mr.Weist and/or any fire-fighter has evidence that shared services model is not beneficial, then I would be more than happy to see that evidence. However, the thought that a decreased efficacy of the system caused by a work slow down, if such is in effect, would in my mind be a totally reckless and irresponsible  approach to public safety and as such would be worthy of disciplinary action  ( within the constraints of any applicable law) for the leadership.

  2. Gunrocik

    I would welcome anyone who comes in contact with a UC Davis fire fighter to engage them in a discussion regarding the shared services agreement and the training consortium.

    I talk to many of them when I see them on campus, and I can tell you to a man — that they will all quietly express their concerns about the inferior amount of training that City of Davis fire fighters receive and how worried they are about fire fighter safety when performing  joint operations with the City.

    1. South of Davis

      Gunrocik wrote:

      > they will all quietly express their concerns about the inferior amount of

      > training that City of Davis fire fighters receive and how worried they are

      > about fire fighter safety when performing  joint operations with the City.

      I have more than a dozen close friends (and relatives) that are current Northern California firefighters and in every department there are “gung ho” guys who tend to work at “gung ho” stations and there are more “kick back” guys who try to get assigned to “kick back” stations.  I was recently talking with a cousin who typically works at a busy Downtown station (because he likes the “action”) after he got stuck in the Outer Sunset for a day covering for someone and he said that he would be scared to be at an actual fire with the older out of shape guys at the station that spend most days playing cards and watching sports.  My guess is the UC guys are “trying harder” (just like all the super gung ho CDF guys I’ve known over the years) since most of them plan to “move up” from a UC (or CDF) job and hope to retire making the big bucks of a Davis city firefighter (or even bigger bucks of a Bay Area city firefighter)…

      1. Gunrocik

        South of Davis wrote: “My guess is the UC guys are “trying harder” (just like all the super gung ho CDF guys I’ve known over the years) since most of them plan to “move up” from a UC (or CDF) job and hope to retire making the big bucks of a Davis city firefighter (or even bigger bucks of a Bay Area city firefighter)…”

        The guys I have spoke with have no desire to go over to the “dark side” as some of them call it.  Most of them make it clear that they don’t want to be like one of their fellow employees who was very focused on compensation versus service and did go over to the City and is now Bobby’s heir apparent to take over the union.

  3. Tia Will

    Gunrocik

    That is a very sobering comment. In the interest of fairness, I am wondering if you have had similar conversations with the Davis firefighters to get their perspective on the relative level of training between the two departments ?

    1. Gunrocik

      That is a very sobering comment. In the interest of fairness, I am wondering if you have had similar conversations with the Davis firefighters to get their perspective on the relative level of training between the two departments?

      My impression of Davis Fire fighters is that they know better than to say anything.  Boss Weist strictly enforces the “cone of silence.”

      Conversely, I think you will find UCD Davis Fire fighters very thoughtful, engaging and sincerely worried about the training received by their counterparts at the City.  I didn’t detect this as a matter of one-upmanship.

      I also think that if you read the Fire Audit, it also presents plenty of factoids that leaves one with the impression that it was not a cutting edge operation.

      The saddest part of this whole discussion is the number of current and past politicians in this community who were willing to blindly sign a letter making preposterous claims about the efficacy of joining in Fire Operations with UC Davis.  Further reinforces how little the local machine cares about outcomes other than its perpetuation of political power.

       

  4. PhilColeman

    Are you really worried about this, David? Relax, take a pill. Part of me secretly feels that you keep trying to resuscitate this long dead horse for a particular reason, and it’s journalistic in nature. But it’s my secret, with limited evidence, so I’ll keep it as such.

    Before I beat you up, you’re are getting really good now summarizing the protracted fire merger story into a succinct and understandable story. Any you continue to singularly keep the fire fighter union in the harsh public limelight. No put on your body armor.

    Let’s take another approach and historical review to this this ominous, sinister, deadly, the-sky-is-falling, threat by the local fire fighter union.

    The fire union has had a series of consecutive defeats dating back almost 2 years that would send a major league pitcher back to the minors if this were a baseball game. They tried the political pressure game, using past favor givers who no longer hold public office or had no business telling Davis politicians how to run its store. Complete failure. They went public and picketed in front of City Hall, and then went door-to-door. Failed utterly. The union rolled in their membership as a show of unity into a City Council meeting and told their tale of woe there. Their tale became a tail between their legs, the one they were colletively holding when they later walked out.

    David, you reported more recently that the local fire union is working behind the scenes now with city leaders, and strongly implied that they may be well making headway towards abolishing this merger. A recent election, and the loss of a supportive city manager was noted as being another fire union opening to return to the old-way. New council, new city manager, no change. Oh, well. To your credit, this morning’s post acknowledges the City is no longer listening.

    Now, we find out the fire fighter union is taking another tack (which, by the way, is a rather obvious acknowledgement of repeated local fire union failure). The move from local to state. The fire union rolls in their state union boss and gets him to write a letter to the top ranking official in the University of California. They want an audit of the local merger and will pay for it. Predictably, the letter recipient tosses it on the desk of the UCD Chancellor, who huddles with her staff. They agree to a meeting. The day of the meeting, the Chancellor does not show, and sends a subordinate. Don’t think for a minute this was not deliberate.

    The meeting was held, the fire union made their pitch, which, from the letter content, was almost pitiful in substance and begging in tone. Result: another in-your-face failure by the local and now state fire union.

    There seems to be a pattern here.

    Finally, this “threat” of the fire union obtaining state legislation to disband one local fire merger agreement is not a threat. It’s a joke. Prediction of this happening: 00000.1 percent. Ask the most pro-union political lobbyist you can find in Sacramento, then stand back while he/she breaks into uncontrollable laughter.

    P. S. Isn’t it even remotely curious to anybody that the fire fighter union has not disputed even a single comma of the Fire Chief’s many detailed reports of the merger success story?

     

    1. Frankly

      Phil Coleman – well said.  But like you write we are only two years into this shift in reduced political dominance from the fire fighters union.  And as you read in a another VG post by Dan Carson, the budget situation is improving. This is not a good time to let up.  In fact, I would say we are only just done with the first quarter and the game is far from over.

      In team sports it is generally strong and consistent defense that rewards with winning seasons.  I say we don’t let up.  The fire fighters just hired five new employees that get 3% at 50.  So what has really changed?  The union is not getting any sympathy from me.  I say don’t let up and reign down suspicion on each and every action the union takes that even hints at even a small return to the status quo.

      1. Robb Davis

        Frankly – the City’s Finance Director told me that the new firefighters are under the new PERS rates (2.5 at 55 I think–someone can correct me), but under the same medical plan as current firefighters.

        1. hpierce

          Based on the actuarial study you gave links to, that would be 2.7% @ 57.  Anyone can go to the CalPers site to find the info.  Both Frankly and you had the wrong info, apparently.  Part of the state legislation for new hires since 1/1/13, I believe.  Still, under the state law, it was the maximum rate (for ‘safety’).  The City might have been able to negotiate/impose a lesser formula, but I don’t know.

        2. Robb Davis

          Thanks pierce – I had looked at the table but had the old misc employees formula stuck in my mind.  So, to be clear: new safety 2.7 at 57 and new misc 2 at 62.  I am double checking that this is what we are using but you are correct that these are the rates used in the actuarial study.  Thanks

      2. Frankly

        Thanks for correcting my incorrect understanding of the benefits for the new FF.  2.7% at 57 is better news… not great news considering we still don’t fund it adequately, it is still too high, and I am not a fan of defined benefit retirement, but more reasonable from a perspective relative to the current defined benefit practice.  I think 2.0% at 57 is probably the target we should expect to eventually require with a 75% cap.  And for the rest it should be 2% at 62 with a 75% cap.

    2. Anon

      To Phil Coleman: Thank you for bringing common sense to this “discussion”.  To continually trot out the theory that the firefighters might be gaining traction for doing away with the shared management arrangement flies in the face of reality.  It also gives more credibility to this matter and to the antics of the firefighters union than is due or appropriate.   As I noted before, it would be political suicide for any City Council member to oppose the shared management arrangement in light of how successful it has been, the city’s budget situation and community sentiment.  Nor is it particularly helpful to continually remind well respected politicians that they were on the wrong side of this issue.  Is it really necessary or helpful to keep rubbing their noses in it? Making mistakes is part of being human.  Learning from mistakes is what makes a person intelligent.

      This and other recent articles on shared management of fire departments would have sat with me a lot better had it been written in the light of continual failure to succeed at dismantling the program, rather than the wringing of the hands that there is every chance dismantling will succeed, which does not comport with common sense.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        (A) I don’t buy that it’s political suicide for any council member to oppose the shared management arrangement – two have and do.
        (B) The firefighters union is trying to hit UC Davis because at some point the firefighters and administration are going to say, this is more trouble than it’s worth.

    3. Matt Williams

      PhilColeman: Isn’t it even remotely curious to anybody that the fire fighter union has not disputed even a single comma of the Fire Chief’s many detailed reports of the merger success story?

      That isn’t very surprising IMO. To me, it just signals that the Union does not expect the battle to be waged at the detail (cerebral) level, but rather at the more subjective political/gut level.

      1. PhilColeman

        We’re at the opposite ends of concern here, and that’s OK, maybe even healthy. I think we both want me to be right and you to be wrong. Come July, if that turns out to be the case, we’ll meet at Steve’s for pizza and beer on my dime.

        But if the Fire Chief is tossed, the City of Davis will be working from a C-list of candidates for every department head vacancies for the next decade. Believe me, it’s not just Davis residents that watch this kind of thing. High-quality ambitious senior managers from every municipality in the State keep tabs as well.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          Phil: I want to be clear here, you may be right. That’s why July is critical. What I am concerned about are factors at work that could undermine something that I think is overwhelmingly good and it be based not on what’s best for the community, but somebody’s personal edification (if you will).

          The other thing is that Bobby Weist apparently has his guy, he’s one of the division chiefs currently in the department. As someone told me, in another situation he would be a fine chief. In Davis, he would likely be controlled by the union.

          So is this thing definitely going in a bad place? No. Could it? Yes.

  5. Tia Will

    Phil

    P. S. Isn’t it even remotely curious to anybody that the fire fighter union has not disputed even a single comma of the Fire Chief’s many detailed reports of the merger success story?”

    Although I am largely in agreement with the position you have taken, I am amazed that the fire fighters union had managed to gain as much traction as it once had in the community without providing any real data or information on how its proposed methods and desire to block the merger were better in the first place.

  6. PhilColeman

    David:

    Your clarity needs no further clarification. And I don’t want to prolong this sub-topic discussion, or appear argumentative. We are not even arguing. But there is a time and circumstance of historical note that has not yet been noted.

    The two “no” votes from the Council are still there. The outside political folks who signed the “Don’t do this” letter to the Council, are still there. The presumption is that these folks remain united behind the fire fighter union, in recognition of past favors given and future favors promised.

    But here’s the fatal flaw, time and context. This fire union political collation expressed their deep concern over a yet-to-be-implemented merger and personnel reduction. The familiar rhetoric (borrowed from the union pitch) predicted increased hazard to Davis citizens and fire fighters, and decreased levels of service if this merger were to occur.

    Now, from many months of careful analysis of results after the merger, we have indisputably learned that these contrived and economically self-serving fears are bogus.

    So, how do the two “no” City Council votes sustain their vote, in light of documentation that rejects the very basis for their original vote?  The dissenters already, very wisely, kept their traps shut when the Council renewed the merger contract for another year. And they will do it again in July.

     

     

    1. Anon

      Spot on!  Those City Council members and other elected officials made decisions that at the time they thought were the best for the city, believing what they were told by the firefighters union would be a disastrous concept – shared management.  But once tested, the shared management approach has worked beautifully, and has proved better than what was originally done.  One cannot assume these same elected politicos would vote the same way in light of the new data right in front of them that shared management works extremely well and far more effectively than what was in place before.  As I said, the difference between smart and stupid people is not that smart people never make mistakes, it is that smart people LEARN FROM THEIR MISTAKES.  How in the heck would a City Council member justify voting against shared management in the face of current data, without appearing to be completely in thrall to the firefighters union and not doing what is best for the city?  It would be political suicide to vote against shared management.

      1. Davis Progressive

        but the firefighters union doesn’t agree with you and are trying to undo it.  it’s easy to sit back here at our computers from the safety of work or home and conjecture but from what i’ve heard, bobby is making the lives of a lot of people miserable and they are questioning whether they should continue to fight.  at some point the university is going to decide this is more trouble than this is worth.  political suicide?  it’s not going to be the council that makes that call.

        1. PhilColeman

          Your response implies that it’s the University–David’s “weak link”–who is going to crumble under Bobby’s relentless pressure. The University will take the path of least resistance and go back to their original fire management configuration.

          The local fire union already took their case to the University and, with a token passage of time, formally replied by saying we’re not interested in any further discussion. What other ploy can the fire fighter union (state or local) use to make the University bow in submission and surrender? I’d really like to know.

          For the record, the Union’s recent failed tactic towards the University hardly meets the standard definition of “pressure.” I’d characterize it as a desperate plea.

          And to the matter of Bobby making the lives of others miserable, you must be referring to the people under his “leadership” while serving in the role as first-line supervisor. The data shows the Captain Weist squad is the most underperforming and undertrained unit in the entire fire department. In that work unit, one can readily understand misery reigns.

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