By David M. Greenwald
This week the city council approved the acquisition of the ladder truck—but I still remain unclear as to why this was such a pressing need, given all of the needs that this community has.
To be clear, my main objection is not the cost of the ladder truck itself, somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million—that’s a one-time cost and finding money for a one-time cost is feasible. The ongoing staffing costs are more concerning—$600K to $1.2 million.
Councilmember Dan Carson believes there are ways to help meet some of those costs, but my problem is this: this is a community that rejected around $3 million in parcel tax money per year for roads and then turned down an economic development project that could have brought in an excess of $5 million per year.
In short, we might be able to find funding for a ladder truck, but prioritizing that as the biggest and clearest need seems a little questionable to me.
We finally got some data—it’s not great though. The UCD fire truck was called out 115 times over the course of 2020.
While not the main point I am trying to make here, I am really disappointed with the poor level of data analysis that exists in this county. We have literally spent a month attempting to untangle the mess of DA data from the county on a separate matter and the city appears in clear need of a data analyst.
The Finance and Budget Commission could probably perform some of this function, and they asked some critical questions that should be answered.
They asked seven critical questions:
- How many 3-story vs. 4-story buildings does Davis now have? (The November report to council says more than 200. It notes, for example, there have been a number of fires at the University Retirement Community, which includes 4-story structures.)
- How frequent are fires at these two building heights respectively?
- How are these fires contained without a ladder truck?
- How many 5-7 story buildings are there in the City currently? How many are in construction? How many are in the planning phases?
- How often have ladder trucks from UC Davis and other jurisdictions been called on?
- How often has the UC Davis ladder truck been used for on-campus fires?
- What is the probability that the UC Davis truck would not be available should there be a fire in a multi-story building in the City? Has this ever happened?
I wish we had a breakdown of how many of those 115 calls were for actual fires that required the truck to actually be deployed and utilized.
We may get a hint with this: of the 832 incidents responded by Station 31 in 2020, 49 were fires.
The fire chief, for whatever reason, did not really analyze the need for the truck in robust terms. The council, other than the question by Mayor Partida that she didn’t follow up on, didn’t even require him to answer.
In the Fitch and Associates Standards of Cover report, they found “it is recommended that the City of Davis invest in their own ladder truck.” It further said “that doing so would improve coverage, redundancy, critical tasks for structure fires and technical rescues. The report determined the best location would be Station 31.”
Lastly, the report said, “A community the size of the city of Davis with the complexity of risk should not be without consistent ladder truck service or depend on an apparatus from distant communities when the UC Davis apparatus is unavailable.”
In my view, the problem with the Fitch and Associates report is that they looked at the general description of Davis—size of the community and structure of the buildings—and decided that a community the size of Davis needs a ladder truck.
But what they failed to present were three considerations: (1) Davis is unique because it has a university next door with an available ladder truck; (2) how many times we actually need the ladder truck to respond to a call; and (3) the fiscal situation of the city and huge hit that an ongoing cost of $645 thousand to $1.26 million would produce.
This is a community that is struggling to pave its roads. If we need a ladder truck a few dozen times a year, is it worth that extra cost? Especially when we have a solution in place that is working at the present time?
To reframe the question—is this a need to have or a nice to have?
With that said, it is very clear to me that we are probably going to need more coverage than we have. While calls for service went down over the last year, they are likely to increase again as we move back toward a more normal existence.
It seems likely that fire service needs are going up. The chief noted that the calls for service were rising, not only in Davis but across the region. That is not only going to strain local resources, but also strain the ability of other agencies to provide mutual aid.
Personnel cost is a huge issue here. But if the vast majority of calls are in fact medical rather than fire, are we not mis-configuring our fire service.
That’s the huge problem that no one touched on Tuesday and the city council continues to ignore. We have a fire department that primarily does not deal with fires. Just like we have a police department that fundamentally does not deal with catching bad guys.
On the police front, we brought in consultants, a joint subcommittee, and have a list of recommendations that could reduce calls for services from anywhere from 20 percent to nearly half.
Shouldn’t we be looking at ways to reconfigure fire?
There are other models out there. One that was explored briefly was to create a small medical-only response team and leave the firefighters to deal with fires. There is also the model of Sunnyvale that has an integrated public safety response—police, fire, and medical.
We started to deal with these issues several years ago but things got too heated. Can we have those kinds of discussions now in a less heated environment with a look toward what services do we need, what is the best model to deploy them, and how much will they cost?
The problem that the community faces is one of multiple needs, a non-systematic prioritization of those needs, and lack of exploration for alternatives.
This is going to become more imperative because we have competing rising needs—climate change and taller and more densely populated community is likely to increase fire danger while an aging population is likely to increase the strain on medical responses.
Figuring out a systematic approach to solving these problems before we jump into solutions that add personnel and costs is paramount.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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