Sunday Commentary II: Why Change Something That Is Working?

Davis Firefighters Union President Weist speaks out in 2012.
Davis Firefighters Union President Weist speaks out in 2012.

In April of 2013, the Davis City Council on a 3-2 vote, with Dan Wolk and Lucas Frerichs dissenting, voted to reduce fire staffing from 12 to 11 firefighters and, in the process, decouple the central fire station apparatus from the fire engine to allow each to respond independently and as needed.

From the perspective of the firefighters, reducing the three fire engines from four personnel down to three put public safety at risk.

Wrote Wendy Benner in March 2013, “More important that any budgetary amount between three- and four-person engines, is life safety. 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.”

She argued, “Currently, with four people arriving in one engine, two could go inside and two would remain outside, ensuring that a home is vacant and fighting the fire from the inside out. However, with three people on a single engine, no one could enter the burning structure until a second truck arrived from another station. Therefore, firefighting begins on the outside, pushing the fire inwards, where all our memories, belongings and, most importantly, loved ones could be trapped.”

Captain Joe Tenney and Captain Emily Lo would charge that these changes were made not by fire professionals who are practitioners of the profession, but rather by people in city government with no direct knowledge of fire service.

In his dissent, Councilmember Lucas Frerichs explained that, while he supported the increased response time and boundary drop, he is not on board with regard to staffing cuts.

“Public safety has been one of the top stated goals,” he said.  “It’s about making sure that the public is safe. Council members have had to make tough choices, those are not changing.”

“At this point, I’m not there yet, I’m not convinced this is the best for the city and public safety,” he concluded.

Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk argued that this is fundamentally a budget issue and he is “not convinced that service levels improve.”

“This is mainly about budgetary savings. I respect that,” he said. “To me that’s how I’m viewing this issue.  We are in a new financial era and the old way of doing things is no longer tenable.”

However, he too would not support this as the way to achieve cost-savings. “I’m not going to support this motion.  I don’t see this move as the way we get there,” he said.

There was an argument made by Captain Shawn Kinney that there was a way that this would produce both cost savings and increased public safety.

Mr. Kinney agreed with the firefighters’ concerns, arguing that four on an engine is clearly better than three. “What this comes down to is four is better than three,” he said. However, he argued that the Kenley plan allows for the increased ability to respond with a quicker and more agile force that, in many cases, can eventually bring more units to bear on an emergency. For instance, in an auto accident, the rescue apparatus would be deployed along with the three-person engine from the local area.”

Under the current model, the entire Station 31 would have to respond, leaving a huge portion of the community uncovered while they respond to the auto accident.

Three years later and it is notable that the issue of fire staffing seems to be completely off the board.

If anything, the current analysis shows that Mr. Kinney was correct. The changes implemented in 2013, starting with boundary drop and ending with the decoupling of Engine and Rescue 31, have not decreased public safety but have increased it.

As the staff report for this week’s item notes, “Boundary dropped proved effective in reducing response times by sending the closest available unit regardless of jurisdiction.” Boundary drop, incidentally, was not controversial in 2013, but had been blocked by the Davis firefighters’ union previously.

The report continues, “Addition of UCD Engine 34 to City 1st alarms, in the majority of instances, increased the speed of the second engine arriving on-scene.”

Finally, “The decoupling of Engine and Rescue 31, and the use of Engine 34 as the next due unit to 31’s jurisdiction, drastically reduced the amount of ‘move and cover’ assignments that brought outlying City station staffing out of their home districts. The result has been Station 32 and 33 have their units in position more often ready to respond to calls for service.”

That is the part of the argument that the firefighters’ union and their supporters so conveniently left out three years ago. People in the city were vulnerable because, if there was a call and the central fire station was out covering it, either the west or the eastern fire engine would move to the central fire station to cover a greater area. That left a huge portion of the city with no cover.

By decoupling the engine and rescue apparatus, it has greatly reduced those situations and so a fire engine is now far closer to people than it was before. The changes therefore didn’t decrease public safety – they increased them.

How effective was this? Again, the personnel changes are now complete non-issues. Instead, the focus is political and it is on the shared management.

The firefighters’ union sees shared management as their vehicle and also the greatest threat. They have pressured council to do an outside review of shared management, at the cost of $20,000 to $40,000.

The same union has fought everything from boundary drop to personnel changes to response time changes to the collective bargaining agreement, that they have yet to sign.

Up for reelection now, Lucas Frerichs acknowledged, “I did vote against the shared management structure though. I was worried about the chief being a UC Davis employee. Actually, that still worries me. Their core competency is they teach people.  They teach students, it’s a university.  They don’t run fire departments.  Most of the universities in this state do not have their own fire departments – that is a role of the municipal government. I firmly believe in that.”

So, while he states, “I do support the shared management,” he still buys into the same arguments as before.

He said that “there have been kinks in this process.”  He said, “Some of these kinks, the weekly management meetings the city manager has with all the departments including the police chief and others, the fire chief doesn’t attend those meetings because he’s on campus usually.”

As it turns out and he later acknowledged, he was wrong. The fire chief does attend the weekly management meetings on a regular basis.

Candidate Will Arnold argued, “I think there’s no reason that we should ever take steps back and de-couple these two. It just doesn’t make sense from a public safety perspective – if only that.  That’s the most important thing here.”

However, he too carried some water for the union when he stated, “I’d frankly like to see the fire chief be right down the street in downtown Davis so any citizens or councilmember who wants to see the fire chief doesn’t have to spent $9 for parking and be outside of town.”

There are parking spaces in front of the fire station that allow people to go there without paying to park on campus.

We have heard from various sources that Bobby Weist, the longtime union president, who has fought reform at every step and been wrong about things more often than not, wants to launch a major offensive. The shared management review is part of the strategy to get rid of the UCD Fire Chief, whom he cannot control.

The reality is that the city is dancing on the head of the pin. On the one hand, there remains a clear three votes, perhaps four or five, to keep shared management, but on the other, Mr. Weist remains formidable.

The council simply needs to say no to this on Tuesday. The reforms have not made us less safe, they have greatly improved public safety. It is time we acknowledge this and move on.

—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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  1. Barack Palin

    It seems that the council candidates who had qualms about the current fire fighting arrangement had to reach deep to come up with any problems which as it turned out were untrue.

  2. zaqzaq

    The firefighters union is simply focused on how to maintain their ridiculously high wages not the public’s safety.  Their true colors have been exposed and they are losing political power which is a good thing for Davis. The only alleged public service they committed was leaking the acquisition of MRAP by the police to the David. Even that was probably directed as a dig against the police.

  3. Anon

    I can understand some who were hesitant to make the change to shared management.  At the time, there was no guarantee it would work.  However, the results are now in, and shared management is actually making things BETTER.  I don’t necessarily fault those who were hesitant to make the change when the idea of shared management was first introduced.  But I would fault anyone who was insistent on going back to the status quo of two separate fire departments when it is clear shared management is working well and has actually improved things.

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