Commentary: Should We Be Concerned about Comments Made by the New Fire Chief?


Friends of Davis Fire

Earlier this year, UC Davis exercised its option to opt out of the shared management of the Davis and UC Davis fire departments.  That meant that leadership of the Davis Fire Department would revert back to the city of the Davis, after several years of joint leadership under UC Davis Chief Nathan Trauernicht.

The city quickly moved to hire its own fire chief – Daryl Arbuthnott.  This marks the first time since early 2010 that the city has had its own, full-time and permanent chief.  In mid-February 2010, long-time Chief Rose Conroy abruptly retired after what was later described as a confrontation with then-City Manager Bill Emlen.

The city quickly named Bill Weisgerber as interim chief and then Scott Kenley, before the 2013 merger between the Davis and UC Davis fire departments under one shared chief.

Daryl Arbuthnott took over in early July and, after a few quiet weeks, an interview with the Davis Enterprise resulted in a large number of messages to the Vanguard.

There are two key areas of concern.

First, the article notes, “(Daryl) Arbuthnott envisioning a number of changes for the Davis Fire Department, a ‘re-branding’ of sorts that includes creating and filling several new positions, updating its aging fire stations and technology, and exploring a return from three- to four-person fire engine crews – a hot-button issue in recent years.”

“My impression is this department has been neglected for several years, and needs some energy put into it again,” he said.

The second part that caught people’s attention came later in the article, “Bobby Weist, president of Davis Professional Firefighters Union 3494, said employees are enthused about Arbuthnott’s leadership.”

“He comes with a lot of credentials, a lot background and experience,” Weist said. “Everywhere that I’ve gone and mentioned his name has come back with a positive response.

“We’re excited to have our identity back, our own department, and we’re excited to see the direction the department’s going to go.”

The Vanguard will be meeting with the new chief later this week, however, my preliminary thoughts are as follows.

There is a reason why the Vanguard has focused so much attention on the fire department in the last decade.  There is also a reason why the city has avoided a full-time fire chief in over seven years.

First, there are concerns that stem from the original Grand Jury report from June 2008 where the follow-up report written by Bob Aaronson showed a pattern of favoritism between the union and the fire chief, retaliation against those perceived critical of the union, and favoritism in terms of hiring people loyal to the chief and the union.

Second, we have long documented the untoward influence of the firefighters’ union in city hall, the tactics they used to get favorable policies, which included bundling of contributions and large independent expenditure campaigns.  The firefighters’ union had a near lock on city hall from 2002 until it was broken by the 2010 election of Joe Krovoza and Rochelle Swanson.

Third, the result of that favorable political arrangement was a series of very lucrative agreements, starting with the implementation of four on an engine, three percent at 50, and of course a massive pay increase of 36 percent from 2004 to 2009.

The result was that the firefighters earned at the very top of the pay scale in the region and near the top in the state for years, and were one of the few stations that still retained four on an engine despite the relative rarity of actual fires requiring four-person teams to make entry into a building.

After a long period of political struggling, in 2013 the council pushed through a number of reforms.  Some of these were unanimous such as boundary drop, the imposition of last, best, and final offer, and changes to the response times.

However, the two most controversial were a 3-2 vote to change to three-man engines and the 3-2 vote to go to shared management.  In both cases it was Joe Krovoza, Rochelle Swanson and Brett Lee voting in the majority with Lucas Frerichs and Dan Wolk in opposition.

Already now we have seen shared management go away, despite the existence of at least three votes in its favor, and now the new chief at least wants a discussion of four-man engines, despite the fact that the union still is operating on the 2013 imposed contract and despite the fact that compensation for the Davis firefighters remains near the top of the pay scale regionally.

The fight for these changes was bitter and divisive.  The firefighters’ union pushed back with complaints to PERB (Public Employment Relations Board), complaints about unfair bargaining, leafletting, protests, and slowdowns.  Ultimately the tactics convinced UC Davis that shared management is more trouble than its worth and, now, we see the new chief pushing for ending three on an engine with the union president singing his praises.

We will see what transpires with all of this.  At this time, there would still appear to be three votes against such a move, but this is a rapidly developing situation with the next election less than a year away and two councilmembers expected not to seek another term.

—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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13 thoughts on “Commentary: Should We Be Concerned about Comments Made by the New Fire Chief?”

  1. Keith O

    If they’re ever allowed to go back to 4 on an engine or are given compensation increases I would hope that the taxpaying citizens of Davis will rise up and protest by defeating any new tax initiatives.

    This is a good reason why all city employee contracts should be worked out before any new tax initiatives make it to ballot.

  2. Howard P

    Just for grins… are folk opposed to 4 on an engine, or just the $?  What if we presented the FF’s a choice… we’d accept 4 on an engine if each and every FF took a 33% total comp cut to pay for it?  Revenue neutrality… and all new hires would be subject to the new, lower, caps on retirement formulas…

    Just ‘sposing…

      1. Howard P

        One county heard from…

        I do not pretend to know what the ‘right-sizing’ is… but am in substantial agreement with the $ concern…

        Given new building codes, and past 10 years of stats showing the VAST MAJORITY of DFD calls for service are medical, and very few are significant structural fires, one could easily argue for the 33% reduction in total comp (less risk to FF’s) AND keeping staffing at the current levels… think it has been ~ 30 years since a life was lost in a house fire in Davis… and that structure was within 150 feet of the main station.  [the life was lost because the resident, safely away, ran back into the structure to save her pet bird, as I recall… not due to response time or staffing level]

    1. Matt Williams

      There is (in my personal opinion) a much better way to implement Howard’s suggestion.  Specifically, the Council, through the City Manager, can give Chief Arbuthnott a fixed dollar amount as his department budget and give him the latitude to use it any way he and the City manager see fit.

      If he truly believes that 4 on an engine makes the department more efficient and effective then he can implement that change.  It would no doubt require additional staffing.  The FY 2016-17 Fire Department head count was  42.15 FTEs (41.40 full time and 0.75 part time) plus the contract services of the Shared Chief.  The FY 2017-18 Fire Department head count is  43.40 FTEs (43.40 full time and 0.00 part time) plus no contract services of the Shared Chief.  The FY 2010-11 Fire Department head count was 51.75 FTEs (51.00 full time and 0.75 part time) plus no contract services of a Shared Chief.

      Assuming the head count needed to support 4 on an engine is the same now as it was in FY 2010-11, Chief Arbuthnott would need to fund that 9.60 FTE increase by spreading the money of the current 41.40 FTEs over 51.00 FTEs.  I suspect some of the spreading would happen due to a decrease in Overtime, but the details of how it happens would be irrelevant.  The Chief and the City manager would get the Budgeted dollars and not a penny more.

      Chief Arbuthnott came to the July 10th FBC meeting as part of the Fire department budget presentation.  He voiced his strong support for 4 on an engine at that time, citing the “wait time” that a fire team has to endure before they can enter an active fire, due to the 2 out, 2 in standard set by the Fire Industry.  The aggregate issues I asked him questions on at that time were (1) historically, what has been the frequency of a “wait time” event since the change from 4 on an engine?  (2)  In those “wait time” events, what was the actual “wait time” (in seconds) before the second engine arrived to provide the manpower needed for 2 out, 2 in? (3) How were the actual fire fighting protocols compromised in those “wait time” events? (4) What was the fiscal impact of the “wait time” on the City and on the owners of the fire compromised structure? (5) It was/is my understanding that OSHA’s standards are different from the California Fire Industry’s standards regarding 2 out, 2 in, and allow entry of a burning structure with 1 out, 2 in.   He answered (5) and deferred answering (1) through (4) citing the need to do homework.  He agreed that OSHA does allow for 1 out, 2 in when a person needs to be rescued from the burning structure.

      I told him I looked forward to getting answers to issues (1) through (4), so that an effective cost/benefit analysis can be performed to determine the value his proposed additional staffing will produce for the community.  His answer to (5) indicates that no delay happens when a person needs to be brought out of a burning structure.

      Not enough information to make a fully informed decision, but a path has been charted toward assembling that information.

  3. Tia Will

    From a health and safety perspective, I would want to see recent data to support pros/cons of a three man vs a four man crew prior to making any statement about support or opposition to a tax. This decision should be data driven, not personal preference driven.

    1. Keith O

      It’s my understanding that the data that has come out has shown 3 on a crew has worked fine.

      But Tia, a question for you.  Let’s say 4 on a crew slightly betters health and safety.  Do we take the plunge and pay more taxes for a slight improvement?  If 4 is better than why not 5?

      At some point we have to weigh the costs and ability to pay for it against the want to haves.

    2. David Greenwald

      I don’t have the recent data but the early data all showed response times greatly improved under boundary drop and the decoupling of the the engine at the central fire station.

        1. David Greenwald

          But they had data on how often stations were out of position through move ups and also the time for when the fourth firefighter arrived on a scene.

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