UC Davis Ends Shared Management of the Fire Department

Chief Trauernicht, UC Davis Fire Department
Chief Trauernicht at a Davis City Council meeting in 2016

In a move likely to reverberate in many ways in the city, on Wednesday UC Davis announced they have informed the city of Davis that they will end the agreement for shared management of the two fire departments. UC Davis Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht has led both departments since January 2014, following a series of reforms by the city of Davis in fire staffing and other practices.

Kelly Ratliff, UC Davis’ interim lead for finance, operations and administration, gave formal notice of the decision to end the agreement in a letter to City Manager Dirk Brazil dated February 1, 2017.

The release from the university indicates that officials “hope that the city will continue to collaborate on a number of service delivery improvements that were implemented under the shared management agreement. There are many examples that have made our shared communities safer such as a ‘dropped boundary’ approach to emergency response using all resources in the community, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries, to get firefighters to emergencies as quickly as possible.”

“We are grateful to Chief Trauernicht and the staff of both departments for their hard work, and we are committed to maintaining a high level of service in our shared community,” Kelly Ratliff said.

Despite a number of successes, the university cited that “significant challenges have remained in managing two different fire departments with different cultures under single leadership.”  The university writes, “Ultimately, university officials concluded that the future success of each department would be better served under separate management.”

In addition, a recent audit finding by CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) on retirement contributions for shared employees further complicates the arrangement.

In the letter, the university wrote, “The recently published ruling by CALPERS about retirement contributions for shared management employees is of great concern. Further, as we have discussed on many occasions, differences in organizational cultures present material challenges that affect continued forward progress towards our joint vision. We believe that the success of both fire departments requires moving forward under independent management at this time.”

Kelly Ratliff said that “the campus is looking forward to collaborating with the city to replace the current shared management arrangement with a cooperative service delivery agreement to lay the framework for a smooth transition to independent management as soon as practically possible, while keeping the best of what has been accomplished to date.”

From the city’s end, the news was greeted with disappointment.

“The University has their reasons for terminating the agreement,” City Manager Dirk Brazil said in a comment to the Vanguard via text message.  “I’m disappointed but respect their position.”

He told the Vanguard, “We will move on, ideally keeping in place those elements that have become common practices – dropped boundaries, combined training, etc. – continuing to collaborate with UCD as the need arises. From a public service perspective, no one should notice a change. Davis firefighters are real pros and there will be no lapse in service.”

He added, “My immediate goal is to quickly begin a process to put a Davis Fire Chief in place.”

Mayor Robb Davis also expressed disappointment.

“I am very disappointed in the decision the University has made in this regard, though I respect their willingness to launch into this endeavor with us in the first place, and am glad that the boundary drop and shared training are to continue,” he said.

The mayor added, “In this time of fiscal challenges it had been my hope that shared services of this nature would provide tangible cost reductions. I saw this one as a model. I still believe that these types of shared services are possible and will continue to explore all options to cut costs.”

He told the Vanguard he will have additional comments “in the coming days.”

The history of shared management proved to be fairly short and contentious from the start.  Following a series of reforms including fire staffing changes and boundary drop in 2013, the council voted 3-2 to implement the agreement which placed then-UC Davis Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht in charge of both departments.

In November of 2013, Senator Lois Wolk, Assemblymember Mariko Yamada, Supervisors Don Saylor and Jim Provenza, and former Supervisor Helen Thomson wrote a letter opposing the City of Davis-UC Davis agreement for shared management services between the City of Davis and UC Davis Fire Department.

The Davis firefighters’ union quickly moved to do everything it could to undermine the agreement.

Ultimately, two issues sank the shared fire management between the city and university.

Back in 2012 when the city and university considered a merger, then-Vice Chancellor John Meyer put a pause on the arrangement, citing what he called a “significant compensation disparity” as the culprit.

“I am deeply concerned about the significant compensation disparity highlighted in the CityGate report,” he wrote.  “The report suggests that UC Davis will increase its compensation in support of consolidation efforts. I believe such action would not be sustainable by UC Davis and should not be assumed in future planning.”

The shared management initially allowed the two entities to ignore the huge pay gap, but changes to CalPERS appears to have thwarted that.

While that issue may have been overcome, the fact that the Davis firefighters never accepted the leadership of the university is at the root of the “differences in organizational cultures” and probably played a much larger role in the university decision to pull out from the agreement.

Now the city will be looking to hire a new chief, and a battle may well ensue for the leadership of the fire department.

—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. Keith O

    While that issue may have been overcome, the fact that the Davis firefighters never accepted the leadership of the university is at the root of the “differences in organizational cultures” and probably paid a much larger role in the university decision to pull out from the agreement.

    I was wondering if this might be a ‘union’ problem?

    Now the city will be looking to hire a new chief and a battle may well ensue for the leadership of the fire department.

    And I’m sure we’ll overpay just as we’ve overpaid for all of our firefighters.

  2. Colin Walsh

    Hard to believe that on the same day the Interim Chancellor appeared on the front page of the Davis Enterprise saying, “Our town-gown relationship is strong.”

    More like is the town-gown relationship is rapidly deteriorating.

    1. Matt Williams

      Colin, I suspect it is more an example of stopping to take a stone out of your shoe.  It is no secret that Bobby Weist has actively and aggressively lobbied the University Administration and the UC Davis firefighters (collectively and individually).  As a result of this decision the Administration doesn’t have to listen to him any more.

      1. Howard P

        Perhaps closer to excising a pre-cancerous lesion…

        Without seeing the PERS thing, suspect PERS was insisting on a ‘one-size fits all’ structure for retirement… Meyer (John, not Jimmy) had it nailed years ago about the concerns (PERS + salary)… he knew much about both systems… not sure if UCD FF’s are under PERS… they may well be under the UC retirement system… I just don’t know.

        Negotiation topics with Davis  FF’s has been a ‘closed session’ item (CC) off/on for months… time will tell…

        1. Matt Williams

          Good point about the PERS “one size fits all” issue.  I suspect “one size fits all” has been a huge part of Bobby Weist’s message to the firefighters, both individually and collectively.  He would love to add the UCD firefighters to the rank and file of his union.

          1. David Greenwald

            It seems like a combination of “real” concerns like PERS and “political concerns” made the university jump ship. Now the key fight will be over who becomes the next chief.

      2. David Greenwald

        This is an important point – it’s really not a town gown issue. The university apparently warned the city well in advance, the city was area of the PERS issue for some time, ultimately the university decided to cut bait here in part over the PERS in part of not wanting to deal with DFD anymore.

        1. Howard P

          in part over the PERS in part of not wanting to deal with DFD anymore.

          Or, perhaps ‘leadership’ elements (yeah, certain individuals) within DFD?  Think you either were being cloying, and/or you believe DFD is monolithic… they are not… but the ‘dominant’ elements keep the others pretty silent, unless you know them and get to use the ‘cone of silence’ with them… I’ll treat those contacts as I would if it were a confessional…

  3. Tia Will

    What a loss. Chief Trauernicht is a model of a forward thinking, evidence based chief under whose leadership response rates were lowered and emphasis placed on optimal training. I am very saddened by this development which I believe would have been avoidable with some cooperation from the Davis side of the combined department.

    1. Howard P

      Perhaps a “loss” for the City, but he lives, and will continue to serve UCD well…  and, if we remain with dropped ‘coverage borders’ (which I hope we do), the City will still benefit…

  4. Tia Will


    All true as written. I just had very high hopes that it would be his philosophy and attitude towards staff development and collaboration that would prevail for the benefit of both our city firefighters and the city as a whole. It looks like that form of improvement will be put on hold for a while at least.

    1. Howard P

      Not on hold, Tia… suspect the CM is working on a new FC, and my gut tells me it should not be an internal recruitment… if we’re lucky the new FC could either quickly learn from UCD, or (better yet) be their mentor…

    1. Howard P

      Seasonal Affective Disorder?  Might be the election cycle, the new admin twitter/action cycle, or, like for me, the short daylight hours (minor, but real)… keep thinking, “this, like a kidney stone shall pass”… we can do our best to destroy the ‘stone’ medically (Berkeley was not a good ultra-sound choice), but at the end of the day it will pass, and life will go on…

      Not ‘optimistic’ per se, but a realist who has enough years under my belt (and that’s a narrow waist… ~ 32 inches) to see that “to everything, there is a season”… remember with the deaths of MLK and RFK, in 8 weeks,things looked bleak…

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