Commentary: Dire Predictions Did Not Come To Pass with Fire Service Reform

Friends of Davis Fire

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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

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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13 Comments

  1. PhilColeman

    . . . you’re going to die.  We’re not trying to scare anybody or anything.”

    Standing alone, that has to be one of the most embarrassing public utterances in recent memory. It’s also more than a little ironic and humorous. Surely, President Weist did not think first on this one.

    With the local fire service finally being allowed to proceed against bitter union and political opposition, it’s notable the Fire Union has taken an uncharacteristic oath of silence, which is probably the strongest validation imaginable for these fire department policy and personnel changes. “The silence is deafening.”

    Also, significant in terms of complete silence is the cadre of prominent local politicians, who felt confident enough to author a powerful letter of condemnation, that has since been totally discredited by these same subsequent events. One would imagine their greatest fear collectively is someone coming up to them with a copy of that letter and a microphone, saying, “What say you now?”

    Finally, again, kudos to Rifkin and Greenwald for bringing this to the necessary level of public awareness. They both deserve, “Citizen of the Year” awards for public dollar savings alone. Give David one percent of the savings, and Mr. Greenwald would never have to grovel for funding of this site every again.

  2. Tia Will

    The arguments, comments from the dais, letters written in opposition to the reforms have, by some, been painted almost exclusively in terms of their political aspects. While I would not deny that some political issues played a role, I think that there is a bigger issue to be considered. Change frightens many people. Many people will want near 100% certainty of their ongoing safety or maintenance of their own status quo before they will consider a change.

    We have seen this in the case of the “Death with Dignity Laws”. The opposition to these bills has largely been of the “but what if” variety invoking horrors of people theoretically being pressured to take life ending medications that they do not really want by family members or greedy and complicit physicians. These arguments are fear based.

    I see the same as being largely true of the firefighter situation. People had what they saw as legitimate fears that the new system would place some homeowners and some folks with medical problems at risk. As it turned out, they were wrong. However, in my eyes, being wrong is not a problem unless you refuse to accept that you were wrong, congratulate those on the correct side for their success and adjust your future assessments accordingly. I do not need to hear a formal apology from anyone, just perhaps a good faith effort to try to be more objective and perhaps more open minded and receptive to change in the future.

    1. Sam

      I agree, the change in the amount of union donations they may receive in the future was probably pretty scary to all of the politicians. That is most likely why they wrote the letter when asked.

      Yet another example of why it is a bad idea to have public unions. Having the ability to influence the person you negotiate with is bad for the public.

    2. PhilColeman

      Points well taken. Of course, the political figures with egg on their face don’t HAVE to apologize for their judgment error, and thus far, they have not.

      Most of these persons continue to serve in the public interest, and some are even seeking higher office and asking for continued public support, and money.

      They predicted in writing loss of local control, increased public peril, and greater costs, and when the dust settled, these predicted events not only never happened, but safety levels went UP and costs went DOWN. In our highly contentious, divisive, information laden society today, how is it that all these persons exercising very poor past judgment as a public policy maker get a free pass?

      Their political opponents will doubtless be less kind and forgiving.

       

      1. Sam

        What are they supposed to say when they apologize? “Sorry we wrote the letters opposing the changes, its just that the unions asked us to and we wanted to keep out jobs so we did it. To be honest if they called us again today and asked we would write another letter even after reading the report. We would do it again because some of us are running for higher office and need the unions support.”

    3. Davis Progressive

      i don’t see this as an issue of change.  you have a group of people who had a vested financial interest in the status quo.  the people who supported their position by and large were political allies.  a few people in the community came forward, most didn’t.

  3. Cecilia EscamillaGreenwald

    Time turn the celebration around and celebrate at UNCLE VITO’S for a job well done by our former city manager Steve Pinkerton, John Meyer, councilmembers Rochelle Swanson, Brett Lee and then Mayor Joe Krovoza.

    This was stated on a post yesterday, and I will say it here too:

    “Thank you Joe Krovoza, Rochelle Swanson AND Brett Lee for voting for boundary drop.  You evaluated the information presented and had foresight on what needed to be done to save money, help the city and UCD work together and still keep safety as a priority.  That is true leadership!  Thank you!

    And Joe said it, but it deserves repeating:  Thank you Chief Trauernicht for the execution of the plan and thank you to past City Managers Steve Pinkerton and John Meyer (Vice-Chancellor now at UCD) for your administrative leadership.

    Steve Pinkerton, you were a true asset to the City of Davis and accomplished so much in such little time! You had the courage and leadership to make tough changes when needed.  It is no surprise that you and John Meyer worked so well together.

    And, thank you to the firefighters for the good job they do keeping our city safe!  I know some may think or feel they are under attack when cost savings become a priority and consolidation takes place, but this shows that good jobs, good benefits and consolidation of resources can take place without compromising the safety of the citizens of Davis.  Thank you Davis Firefighters!”

    1. hpierce

      Steve Pinkerton, for many reasons OTHER than FF/employee negotiations, was far from being laudable.  He proved the adage that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  Of the many actual/interim City Managers I’m familiar with, he is almost dead last as to serving the community well.  Yes, he was right a couple of times… I give him that.  Yet it seems some want to name him to sainthood.  No way.

      Howard Reese was CM when I came to town.

      1. Misanthrop

        Maybe you could give some examples as to why you feel Pinkerton was so bad. He clearly was right about the fire department. He also came in during a time when the city budget was bleeding and left with it in better shape after negotiating contracts with most bargaining groups and being forced to impose them on two groups. So as my kids would say H Pierce, What is your damage?

  4. Anon

    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.”

    Great thanks goes to these Councilmembers for supporting shared management.

    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.

    Huge thanks for Chief Trauernicht for leading the way.

    Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald: “Steve Pinkerton, you were a true asset to the City of Davis and accomplished so much in such little time! You had the courage and leadership to make tough changes when needed.  It is no surprise that you and John Meyer worked so well together.

    Spot on!  Pinkerton led us through the recession, the shared fire department arrangement, the surface water project, among other remarkable achievements.  He should be lauded for those achievements, not discredited as a city manager.

    Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald: “And, thank you to the firefighters for the good job they do keeping our city safe!  I know some may think or feel they are under attack when cost savings become a priority and consolidation takes place, but this shows that good jobs, good benefits and consolidation of resources can take place without compromising the safety of the citizens of Davis.  Thank you Davis Firefighters!

    Well said!

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