My View: Council Approves Ladder Truck, but I’m Still Unclear on the Actual Need

UC Davis ladder vehicle fighting a fire in downtown Davis in 2018

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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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. Alan Miller

    I totally agree with you here and on all your points.  I would clarify:

    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.

    What we actually need is how many of those 115 calls required a ladder (i.e a tall building was burning – can’t recall a whole lot of those in 2020 on campus) as opposed to just using the ladder truck for a fire that any other truck could have responded to.

    Very much support the re-jiggering of the fire department response model.  I believe Robb Davis years ago was a huge critic of fire response with the truck and full crew for medical issues.  Anecdotally, when my mom was in her final year on Earth and I moved her to Davis and she was having medical issues, there would be a call to take her to the hospital 1/2-mile away and her room would be packed with fire, police and ambulance personnel and a fire truck outside and I remember thinking ever time, ‘this is total overkill’.  And wouldn’t a small van with medical equipment/supplies be more nimble and get to the scene faster than a fire truck, and require fewer personnel?

    Not sure what you meant here:

    We started to deal with these issues several years ago but things got too heated.

    In what way did “things” get “too heated” ?  Some history please.  I assume that wasn’t just a fire pun.

    When the ladder truck articles were being run last week, I didn’t realize the CC was voting on this – I thought this was the beginning of a long process to seek funding, and that clearly this was a bad idea that couldn’t possibly be considered now.  I don’t even see how this can be considered given budget restraints, nor justified given the availability of the UC ladder truck.  We should again be working towards a united Davis fire system, dåmn the ‘cultural differences’ between the departments or why-ever they can’t get along – get the f¨ck past that and make them work together.  I’m really disgusted by the failure of that attempt a few years ago and that CC is just moving away from any form of cooperation by this colossal money-flushing toilet move.

    Had I realized they were voting I would have called in.  Because, y’know that would have made a difference because CC always listen to Alan Miller     As opposed to, y’know, public unions such as fire union.

    So, how now do we stop this, reverse this plastic council move?

    1. Bill Marshall

      Recall of at least 3 members, on this issue, might work… but with a 5-0 vote, and their reasons for voting stated, just can’t see a member moving for reconsideration, a second one seconding it, and then getting a 3rd vote along the way… I too, would support a third alternative…

    2. David Greenwald

      Your comment reminded me of one other point – if we went to a CAHOOTS model, I wonder how many times we would avoid the need for a fire response as well. Each time we had to make a mental health emergency call last year – both police and fire responded each time. Unfortunately not an insignificant number of responses.

      1. Alan Miller

        Each time we had to make a mental health emergency call last year – both police and fire responded each time.

        Wow, really?  That is disturbing.

        I hope we can separate that probably good idea of having a mental-health response unit from those calling for literally dismantling the police department and having no police.  That crowd isn’t helping the conversation.

  2. Ron Glick

    This is the consequence of not merging the UC and Davis fire departments years ago. Steve Pinkerton tried but our fire department was opposed. Also the differential in pay scales between the two departments was too large to overcome and UC didn’t want to pay Davis rates to UC firefighters. Of course if UC was annexed into the city this could have been worked out during the annexation process.

    The key here was the defeat of Rochelle Swanson in the last election. Swanson was part of the CC that tried to get the runaway costs of the fire department under control. The firefighters supported her opponent and now are getting their due with a huge ongoing increase in staffing and a huge one time outlay that will likely come from the Bidenbucks congress recently appropriated.

    The irony here is that while the focus has been on the DPD the DFD has been busy working to get a bigger piece of a budget that already has a structural deficit that is accumulating at the rate of tens of millions a year.

    I guess the big question is how many Bidenbucks is the City getting? Sadly, it seems, the CC is committing a big chunk to the DFD before any real debate on prioritizing that money has occurred.

  3. Ron Oertel

    David’s interest and focus on this issue is appreciated.

    Too bad that the questions don’t appear to have been adequately considered by the council.

    Did they provide an overriding reason, for their approval?


  4. Matt Williams

    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.)

    University Retirement Community is the same distance from the 5th Street fire station as it is from the UC Davis fire station, and according to Google Maps’ two images below, it takes less time time to get to URC from the UC Davis fire station than from the 5th Street fire station.

    I suspect this decision was driven by the political agenda of Davis Firefighters Local 3494 … not wanting UC Davis firefighters deployed to City of Davis fires.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    1. Ron Glick

      “I suspect this decision was driven by the political agenda of Davis Firefighters Local 3494 … not wanting UC Davis firefighters deployed to City of Davis fires.”

      Maybe, maybe not.

      Local 3494 does have an obvious interest in having more FF’s to represent. The larger the DFD staff the bigger the Local 3494 budget.

      1. Matt Williams

        An even bigger issue Ron, is the hourly pay differential between Local 3494 firefighters and UC Davis firefighters.  The Union wants every person at the site of a call for service go be paid at the hourly level (and pension level) that the Union has extracted from the City over the years.

        With that said, both your point and my added point are significant factors.

        Another factor is the higher office aspirations of any of the Council members.  Having a pro-Union decision on the resume is a strong positive when dealing with the Democratic Party regulars.

  5. Robb Davis

    Since I have not had the opportunity to discuss this issue or the decision with any of the CC members, I will refrain from criticizing them here. Some of the historical reflection by RG is, however, very relevant in my view.

    Whatever the case, if our community is serious about re-visioning the role of the police vis-a-vis appropriate responses to community needs, and truly looking at comprehensive approach to public health and safety, then the DFD MUST be part of the discussion.

    Matching community health and safety needs with the staffing, equipment, and approaches of our public safety-focused departments is critical if we are to both meet needs AND maintain budgetary integrity.

    1. Matt Williams

      I concur with Robb 100%.

      If we had an integrated Public Safety Department where all personnel are cross trained to handle the full range of public safety needs, I suspect the budgetary needs would actually be decreased from the current model. Organizing the department where there is a small portion of the department whose primary focus is reacting to, containing and deescalating incidents (fire, medical and/or policing) would leave all the rest of the department for unarmed presence in the community’s neighborhoods.

      That would result in a proactive approach that thinks about preventing incidents that is a far cry from the current “make arrests” culture of the Davis Police Department, which unfortunately starts with a mindset where Police personnel are asking the question “What are you doing?” rather than the question “How can I help you?”

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