Wednesday, April 16, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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A new perspective on the Davis Fire Department

RichRifkinW

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From page A4 | September 04, 2013 | 14 Comments

Perhaps the most permanent impression of my four-hour ride-along with the Davis Fire Department will be their rapid response to each call.

I arrived at the downtown station a few minutes before 1 p.m. a week ago Tuesday. After introducing myself to Capt. Bobby Weist and firefighters Burke Cahill and Ryan Crow, I was told that they had a training session planned. Another engine company would be joining us shortly.

But then, at 1:03 p.m., the alarm sounded. There was a medical emergency on East Eighth Street. Engine 31 was dispatched.

In 25 seconds, the three firefighters and I were out of the station, speeding toward an apartment building across from the former Valley Oak Elementary School. Before this first experience, I assumed it took much longer — a minute or two — to get a fire engine en route.

An incident on my mind, as we drove through Davis, had happened the day before in Woodland. I was on Gibson Road east of County Fair Mall. A fire vehicle approached from behind, its siren blaring and its lights flashing.

Half or more of the cars pulled over and got out of the way, as the law requires. I stopped my bicycle. But the rest obliviously ignored the emergency siren and lights. And as a result, the WFD was slowed getting on scene.

I thought that story would amuse the Davis firefighters until I experienced in Davis what they see every day: Many drivers here don’t make way for emergency vehicles.

One firefighter told me some people learn to drive in different countries, where the rules are not the same. Another said it’s getting worse as more are distracted by their phones and text messages.

I wanted to pull out my imaginary ray gun and shoot the dopes who failed to yield as we drove to East Eighth Street.

We arrived three minutes after leaving the station. An elderly man, who was being cared for by his granddaughter, had had a seizure in their car in the parking lot. While Weist gathered information about his medical history and what had happened, the other two attended to the patient.

Firefighters are trained as emergency medical technicians. Until the ambulance arrived — four minutes later — the ill man was in the care of Crow and Cahill. Crow told me in the station later that the patient was postictal, a common consequence of a seizure. (An hour later, they treated another seizure patient with similar symptoms.)

As I reported in this column three years ago, the Davis Fire Department normally arrives on scene at a medical call before the AMR ambulance. And whenever the discrepancy is five minutes or more, fire is always first.

My experience last week was in line with my 2010 examination of dispatch records. Engine 31 was sent on three medical calls during my Aug. 27 ride-along. The ambulance arrived four, 10 and six minutes after Engine 31. In a life-or-death situation, an extra few minutes could be critical.

The reason fire personnel are faster to medical calls is simple math: We usually have three fire companies spread across Davis from east to west, yet often there is only one ambulance in our entire city.

We had been back at the downtown station for a few minutes when the next call came in for a medical emergency at the Arco gas station on Mace Boulevard. The South Davis fire engine was unavailable, and the closest available ambulance was in West Sacramento.

Thanks to Crow’s fast driving, we arrived in under five minutes, again having to fight our way past cars that failed to pull over.

Fortunately, the patient did not appear to be extraordinarily sick. Weist and his team followed their normal procedures treating him, and 10 minutes later the ambulance arrived.

One firefighter told me that the AMR service has improved in the past few months. He thinks it is because AMR’s contract is up for renewal, and the company has ordered its employees to do a better job. I have no way of verifying if their performance has changed, but the business logic makes sense.

Because Engine 31 was responding to calls one after another for most of my first two hours with them — in between medical emergencies we were dispatched to a reported downed power line — their scheduled training session had to be cancelled.

And then, as commonly happens, no more calls came in for Engine 31 the last two hours of my ride-along. But during that span, a Davis strike team packed up and left for the Rim Fire in Tuolumne County, and a West Davis engine was sent to a seven-alarm fire in Fairfield.

As readers of this column know, I have been critical of the city’s contract with the Fire Department’s union. I remain critical. They are overcompensated.

Some firefighters mistakenly believe I have a vendetta against their department or against them personally. Neither is true. I admire the work they do. It’s vital. But that doesn’t mean our city’s policies should go unchallenged as we lurch toward insolvency.

Davis continues to have a huge fiscal hole, and a big part of that was dug by not properly managing labor costs, especially with the Fire Department.

Yet having spent a full afternoon riding with the DFD, I have a new perspective, and I have advice for my readers, including members of the Davis City Council: Sign up for a ride-along.

Our firefighters are professionals. They care about their work. And sitting high up in a big, red fire engine racing to an emergency gives you a point of view you’ve likely never had before.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at Lxartist@yahoo.com

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Discussion | 14 comments

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  • RyanSeptember 04, 2013 - 12:23 pm

    Rich, I really appreciate you taking the time to ride-along for a few hours and having an opportunity to get a small glimpse of what we do. There is a common line in the fire service called the “curse of the ride-along.” Meaning, when a ride-along comes in we don’t run any calls (that is actually a good thing), but that wasn’t the case for you. There were a total of 21 emergency calls in the city that day. I strongly agree that city council members should ride-along. I think it is important for the people who are making decisions in regards to public safety to take advantage of the ride-along program. It’s hard to get a true understanding of the fire service and a firefighters life in general in a four-hour slot, but I’m glad this was a good experience for you.

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  • Perry WhiteSeptember 04, 2013 - 10:01 pm

    I found the article very interesting, BUT: 1. The calls Rich went on were for medical emergencies, not fires. Wouldn't it be cheaper and more efficient to get an ambulance service in Davis that could respond in a timely manner? Why are we sending FIREMEN to do the work of EMT's? And if we are, why can't we just cut out the ambulance service? Sending the fire truck out for every bicycle accident doesn't make sense. 2. How many fire rigs did they send out for each medical emergency? 3. How many men (oops, sorry, "personnel") were on each truck? Three or four?

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  • Rich RifkinSeptember 05, 2013 - 1:39 pm

    “The calls Rich went on were for medical emergencies, not fires.” ….... One was non-medical. It was called in as a power-line down. It turned out, after Capt. Weist and his men investigated, instead to be a fallen telephone-line. …… “Wouldn't it be cheaper and more efficient to get an ambulance service in Davis that could respond in a timely manner?” …… There are agencies where the ambulance service is a part of the fire department. I never asked, but I would imagine the firefighters in Davis would prefer that to what we have, a private ambulance company that does its work on contract. Regardless, Davis has no control over this question. It is statutorily decided by the county. Up until this year, Yolo County has been a part of a much larger JPA with other counties, all contracted with AMR for ambulance service. Very soon, that will change, as Yolo County has broken away from the JPA and formed its own service district. Hopefully, one result will be that Davis will get quicker response from its new ambulance provider.

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  • Rich RifkinSeptember 05, 2013 - 1:40 pm

    …… “Why are we sending FIREMEN to do the work of EMT's? And if we are, why can't we just cut out the ambulance service?” Beside the fact that each ambulance has on board a paramedic—that takes far more medical training than an EMT—the job of the ambulance is transport to the hospital. So in a case where a fire company responds to a simple medical call, it is tied up for 10 to 20 minutes. But that would more than double if it also had to transport a patient to a hospital (something, obviously, which fire engines are not built to do). …… “Sending the fire truck out for every bicycle accident doesn't make sense.” …… One recent change is that the DFD now can send just its rescue truck to respond to a medical call. However, looking at dispatch records, it’s not clear to me that is being done. The rescue truck usually seems to accompany an engine company on its calls. Had I done this ride-along with E31 one year ago, every call would have included the large fire engine (with two on board) and the smaller rescue truck (with two more people on board). But now that the R31 has been de-coupled, it did not come with E31 on any of the calls we went to. If one of them had been a fire or a major car accident on the freeway, it’s likely dispatch would have sent E31, R31 and more.

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  • Rich RifkinSeptember 05, 2013 - 1:41 pm

    …… “How many fire rigs did they send out for each medical emergency?” …… Just one, Engine 31. …… “How many men (oops, sorry, "personnel") were on each truck? Three or four?” …… Three. This, also, is a major change from before. (Note: Counting me there were four. But three professionals and one observer.)

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  • R FranklinSeptember 04, 2013 - 10:33 pm

    So I have to ask Rich. Do you think you have a grasp of how operations work that you could say three person engine companies are better than four person engine companies? I know you went on only medical calls but put yourself in their shoes and imagine what needs to happen during a CPR call or a vehicle accident or fire. You seemed to discuss with them certain topics. Did you discuss with them their point of view of why they want four instead of three person companies? It seems that your perspective of certain ideas changed (ie. the ambulance gets there before the engine). Maybe talking to the firefighter's side could change your perspective on that issue too. Oh and as for being overpaid. Paying someone $29/hr to do what they do seems fair to me.

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  • Rich RifkinSeptember 05, 2013 - 2:23 pm

    “So I have to ask Rich. Do you think you have a grasp of how operations work that you could say three person engine companies are better than four person engine companies?” …… I would not say better, but certainly good enough. If better were the only consideration, we could have 5-man crews on each engine. If we had been sent to a major car accident on the freeway—which is not uncommon in Davis—dispatch would have sent at least one engine and one rescue crew. That would be 5 firefighters. And if we had been sent to a structure fire (or really, any fire), multiple engines would have been dispatched. It seems to me for fire calls the key to making the 3-3-3-2 structure we have in the city of Davis (which is augmented by UCD’s Engine 34) work best, the responders need to be positioned so that a second rig can get to a fire scene as fast as possible. ……

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  • Rich RifkinSeptember 05, 2013 - 2:24 pm

    “I know you went on only medical calls but put yourself in their shoes and imagine what needs to happen during a CPR call or a vehicle accident or fire. You seemed to discuss with them certain topics. Did you discuss with them their point of view of why they want four instead of three person companies?” …… Yes, we talked about this. The view of the firefighters (the three I talked to last week and presumably every one in the department) is that four-man engine companies are crucial for fighting fires. Captain Weist told me that every minute a fire can double. So he wants to get two men inside a structure at the source of the fire ASAP, able to put water on the fire before it has a chance to spread. He said, if they have to wait for a second rig to arrive, he cannot send in two men to attack the fire from inside the structure. …… If Davis had unlimited resources and had no serious budgetary issues to consider, that makes sense. But, we do have a huge fiscal hole and a great amount of debt and other competing interests for the city’s funds. Also, we very rarely have fires where the 2-in-, 2-out rule applies in such a way that the DFD cannot enter a building. Some fire professionals in Davis looked at the famous Eel Drive garage fire (the one example often cited as a reason to have 4-man engine companies) and said OSHA rules would have allowed a 3-man company to attack that fire exactly the same way. There was a fire-rated door between the garage, where the fire was, and the interior of the house. So a team of two could have entered with a hose (as two of the four there did) and doused the fire from inside, pushing the flames away from the rest of the house, with a single firefighter outside. ……

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  • Rich RifkinSeptember 05, 2013 - 2:25 pm

    Ultimately, with 3-man engines in Davis (just the same as they have in every other community our size in our region, including Woodland and Vacaville and so on) it is crucial that a second rig can get to a fire shortly after the first arrives. I believe the boundary drop will help this. However, I should add that our Davis firefighters told me last week they don’t believe the boundary drop has made any difference. (I have made a mental note to bring this question up with Nathan Trauernicht, the UCD fire chief.) …… “It seems that your perspective of certain ideas changed (ie. the ambulance gets there before the engine). Maybe talking to the firefighter's side could change your perspective on that issue too.” …… I had no real perspective on this before I looked at the facts in 2010 and reported them, then. That is, I wrote three years ago that the DFD tends to get to medical calls faster than AMR, and if there is a substantial delay in arrival, it is the ambulance which is slow to arrive, not the fire truck. As I noted in this column, this is due to our often having only one ambulance in town, compared with usually having 3 fire stations at the ready. ……

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  • Rich RifkinSeptember 05, 2013 - 2:26 pm

    “Oh and as for being overpaid. Paying someone $29/hr to do what they do seems fair to me.” …… Again, it’s a matter of how many resources the City of Davis has and how we use them. Your $29 figure is divorced from reality. What you need to consider is that the total compensation of a Davis firefighter, not counting division chiefs or other brass, is around $180k or $190k per year and going up fast. (I would have to look it up to give you the exact number.) That includes salary, overtime paid by the city, present medical benefits, other present load costs, pension payments by the city and retiree medical costs. Keep in mind that pension rates are scheduled to increase by another 60% in the next 6-7 years, and because our pensions are all terribly underfunded, it will have to go up more than that in the next decade. Additionally, medical premiums, for both current employees and retirees, are going up much faster than the city’s revenues are. They have averaged an increase of more than 11% per year for the last 10 years, while the city’s revenues have inflated at under 3% per year. And with Davis not growing its population so fast any more, the city’s revenue increases are likely to grow more slowly, while premium costs keep going up. This is a big reason why our city council is united around the notion of giving a less generous retiree medical package and cutting back on the medical cash-out.

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  • Louise CravenSeptember 05, 2013 - 9:37 am

    I live in a neighborhood built between 1970-78 and many of the original residents are seniors. It's not uncommon to see a firetruck and / or ambulance on the streets. From all reports, the emergency providers have been stellar, sensitive, and knowledgeable. Thank goodness for them! As far as the city council members doing a ride-along, YES they should, but they'd have to stay with the truck. I'm not sure I'd want anyone but the emergency providers in my house if there was a problem. There are privacy issues, of course.

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  • Kevin KellySeptember 06, 2013 - 8:23 am

    Rich , I'm a City of Davis retiree and my premium for my health insurance is going own $ 124.00 starting 01/01/2014 . Also retirees pay 100 % of the premium for dental insurance , a quote you always get wrong .

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  • Rich RifkinSeptember 06, 2013 - 4:38 pm

    Kevin, I've looked at the CalPERS increases in medical premiums for 2014 for the Sacramento area. With the exception of PERSCare (which up until now was a very expensive plan compared with the others), all the medical plans are going up. For the City of Davis, the most important one is the Kaiser Family Plan. It is what Davis bases its full benefit on. In 2012, KFP-Sacramento increased by 7.3%. In 2013 it increased another 9.0%. And in 2014, KFP-Sacto will go up by 11.1%. That means for every $100 the taxpayers of Davis spent on employee and retiree medical premiums in 2011 will cost $129.94 in 2014. The problem, of course, is that the City's revenues have barely increased since 2011. We don't have an extra 29.94% for those added expenses. That's one reason why reducing the City's medical cash-out is so important. If I recall correctly, the cash-out alone cost us $4 million in 2012. ...... And if you go back a decade, you can really see how bad the medical inflation for CalPERS has been. (By the way, medical inflation for our economy as a whole is less than 1/3rd what it has been for public employees in our state.) In 2002, what cost the taxpayers of Davis $100 for KFP-Sacramento will have inflated by 2014 to $355.01. In other words, the average annual compounded inflation for medical costs for the taxpayers of Davis for city employees and retirees has been 11.1357% per year for the last 12 years. Yet during that period, the city's revenues have increased at less than 3% per year, despite a huge bubble from 2002-2008. Along with the entirely unaffordable pension plans, that is why our city is likely going to go bankrupt or will have to cut back its work force by some large percentage (even though the city now employs about 20% fewer people than it did 4-5 years ago). I am not sure how many more city jobs will be lost. But it's likely going to be a lot.

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  • Rich RifkinSeptember 06, 2013 - 4:49 pm

    A clarification on PERSCare-Sacramento: for a single in 2013, the premium rate per month was $1007.54. By contrast, for KFP, the single premium rate per month in 2013 was $613.42. KFP-Sacramento will cost $681.59 in 2014, an annual total of $8,179.08 per single employee. But, prior to some bargaining units accepting a reduction in cash-outs, most employees, single, married or married with children cost the taxpayers 3x the single rate, even if they used no city insurance at all and were covered by someone else's plan.

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