It was late 2012, when then-Interim Fire Chief Scott Kenley brought the Davis City Council a proposal that, among other things, would reduce the number of firefighters on duty from 12 to 11, implement boundary drop, raise the response time, and move the city and UC Davis into a shared management agreement.
A year later, the Davis City Council, in particular led by Mayor Joe Krovoza and Councilmembers Rochelle Swanson and Brett Lee, helped to guide the most contentious issues – shared management and reduction of fire personnel – through on narrow 3-2 votes.
In the process, the firefighters and their allies among elected officials put forth dire predictions that these changes would endanger the public’s safety and would saddle property owners with higher insurance costs.
In fact, the opposite has occurred. A year ago, it became pretty clear that the arrangement was working. Statistics provided by the fire department showed that the number of “move-ups” – where a peripheral fire engine had to move to cover the central fire station – had dropped dramatically. This was critical data, because any time a peripheral station moved to the central fire station, it left the peripheral station’s primary area uncovered and created a longer response time.
The changes, including boundary drop (allowing the closest unit to respond whether it was UC Davis or Davis) and decoupling of the central fire station’s fire engine from the rescue apparatus, allowed the department to respond with more speed and versatility.
While these were not the only factors in the announcement by the city of the improved ISO (Insurance Services Office, Inc.) rating for the city – which went from a 4 to a 2, they were part of it.
Chief Trauernicht attributed the ISO rating upgrade to a number of factors, including deployment practices of the department and the department’s participation in regional training through the West Valley Regional Training Consortium. “Because we were part of the consortium we were able to count the regional training center in West Sac as our training center,” he explained.
He also attributed the ratings increase to the “deployment modifications we made – decoupling of the rescue (apparatus), puts another available company in the city. The boundary drop with the addition of Engine 34 into the first alarm matrix in the city increases the number of personnel that we’re now sending to a first alarm.”
“I think all those things contributed,” he said.
The city’s press release contained a perfunctory quote from Mayor Dan Wolk. He said, “This is a great benefit to our City. I would like to thank the Davis Fire Department staff and our services partners for their contributions to making Davis a safe place to work and live; this achievement would not have been possible without the dedication and professionalism of these agencies.”
However, the mayor glosses over the part that this achievement would not have been possible without the policy changes – two of which he opposed.
The firefighters’ union played hard ball. They attempted to rally the public through leafleting, scare tactics, astroturf support groups, protests and picketing, but, for the most part, the public did not rally to their side.
There was a February 2013 public meeting that the firefighters held at Pioneer Elementary. Less than a dozen people showed up. Union President Bobby Weist tried to play the safety card.
“In South Davis this is going to be a huge impact to you,” Mr. Weist told one resident, “If your house is on fire and we’re not here, [we’re] trying to tell you that if this happens, you’re going to die. We’re not trying to scare anybody or anything.”
By the end of the year five public officials sent a letter to the city opposing the proposed Shared-Management agreement between the city of Davis and UC Davis Fire Departments.
Senator Lois Wolk, Assemblymember Mariko Yamada, Supervisors Don Saylor and Jim Provenza and former Supervisor Helen Thomson wrote a letter to the Davis City Council opposing the agreement.
The letter argued, “We believe that governance of public safety is and must remain a core function of the elected City Council of Davis. Community oversight and accountability is an important element of municipal services.”
They wrote, “We urge the Davis City Council to take another look at the serious long-range consequences of this proposal before contracting out any of these core municipal functions. There is a key difference between sharing or coordinating services and merging governance with the constitutionally separate and unelected Regents and Chancellor.”
“This proposed action would place a well-established and effective municipal service within an entity whose primary mission is higher education and research, not public safety,” the letter continues. “This could easily result in a lessening of service and response for the residents of the Davis community and the surrounding areas historically served by the Davis Fire Department. We deeply appreciate the presence of the UC Davis campus and respect the leadership of the campus. Unified operations and efficiencies are appropriate considerations, but should not come with loss of community accountability.”
A second letter was sent out by former County Supervisor Betsy Marchand, now-School Board president Alan Fernandes, former Davis City Councilmembers Mike Corbett and Ted Puntillo, with former Mayor Ruth Asmundson expressing their “strong opposition” to the shared management agreement, arguing, “We believe this decision was made in haste and without a full examination of the proposal’s implications.”
The writers added they found it “deeply disturbing” that the council “would take such quick action on an item as critical as public safety management, relying solely on the simple presentation of a consultant report and without attempting to conduct further analysis or seek any real public input.”
As one letter writer put it, “Not only could the reduced staffing result in more property damage, and with that the loss of what most of us hold most dear after our loved ones – our photos, our memories.”
However, in the end these dire predictions have not come to pass. Shared management has become so uncontroversial that the deadline for the agreement to automatically roll over under December 31, 2016, came and went in July without so much as a public discussion about it.
And now we have the new ISO rating, in addition to the data that has been accumulating for the last nearly two years, that show that not only have the reforms not made us less safe, they may have improved the fire service that this community receives. Of course no one who was offering doomsday scenarios is likely to line up at city council to admit they were mistaken and taken in by the rhetoric of the firefighters’ union.
Unfortunately, damage was done. City Manager Steve Pinkerton ended up leaving, as firefighters and some elected officials counted down his departure at Uncle Vito’s in spring of 2014. On the other hand, former Mayor Joe Krovoza and Councilmembers Rochelle Swanson and Brett Lee held tough in the face of pressure and made these reforms possible, which have not only helped the city get back on its financial feet, but have made us safer at the same time.
—David M. Greenwald reporting