In my March 13 column, I wrote, “it is clear, when listening to (City Council members) Dan Wolk and Lucas Frerichs, both ambitious young Democrats, that they are willing to bend over backwards to not come across as anti-union. They know that label could imperil their futures in higher office.”
I was explaining why Wolk and Frerichs voted to kill the 3-3-3-2 fire staffing model recommended by Scott Kenley, our former interim fire chief. They both voiced support for the 4-4-4 scheme favored by the firefighters’ union.
After that column was published, Lucas requested that we chat. He wanted to explain his position in person. He was unhappy I had insinuated that his priority was neither public safety nor the city’s fiscal health.
We had a pleasant discussion for more than an hour on the deck outside the Cloud Forest Café on D Street. Lucas is a charming and pleasant person.
One thing I could not get out of him, however, was a cogent argument why the 4-4-4 union model, put in place by former Chief Rose Conroy — who, according to the city’s ombudsman, was exceedingly deferential to the union — was better from a public safety perspective than 3-3-3-2.
Under 4-4-4, we have three engine companies, each staffed with four firefighters. Under 3-3-3-2, we have three engines staffed with three firefighters plus a rescue truck staffed with two firefighters.
The example Lucas came up with was “a major crash on I-80, out toward the Causeway.” He said, if we have only three firefighters in South Davis, they won’t be able to do as much as having four, imperiling lives.
Unfortunately for Lucas, his one example of what’s wrong with the Kenley model is actually a good example of its superiority. Yes, three firefighters would arrive on Engine 33. But immediately thereafter, two more would come on Rescue Truck 31.
That is exactly what the two in 3-3-3-2 creates: a decoupled rescue truck that can respond independently of Engine 31.
So if there were a big crash near the Causeway, the city of Davis could dispatch five personnel and still have two engines ready if needed. Under the union model, that crash on I-80 would only get four firefighters on scene, and those four would be coming from downtown, if South Davis had another call.
The staffing issue came back to the City Council last week, and fortunately, a majority overrode Wolk and Frerichs and adopted the Kenley plan.
In its Sunday editorial, The Enterprise wrote, “We’re extremely disappointed that Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk and Councilman Lucas Frerichs didn’t see the wisdom in making this change.”
Disappointed, perhaps. But no one should have been surprised.
Dan and Lucas understand that it’s next to impossible to climb the political ladder in their party if they stood up to the firefighters.
No one knows the power of the firefighters better than Dan’s mother, Sen. Lois Wolk. After she once voted against them in the state Senate, the firefighters stripped her committee assignments to punish her.
One thing I know from talking with Dan Wolk — another exceedingly nice person — is that Dan is not dumb. He’s a Stanford graduate and has a law degree from Boalt Hall.
Yet when it came time to defend 4-4-4 over 3-3-3-2 last week, he could not articulate anything coherently. At one point, during the round of council questions, Dan asked why we couldn’t keep four people on each of the three engines and still have a decoupled rescue truck.
Everyone stared at Dan with an expression of “Are you serious?” until Mayor Joe Krovoza — who, along with City Manager Steve Pinkerton deserves great praise for leadership on this issue — explained that 4-4-4-2 would mean Davis would have to pay two more firefighters per shift than we do now.
“Oh,” Dan replied, aware that would be tough, considering Davis is now drowning in red ink.
Councilman Wolk also tried to contend that the problem we now have with simultaneous calls — where one-third or more of Davis has no coverage part of every day — will be entirely solved by the adoption of the boundary drop with UC Davis.
Alas, it won’t. Under 4-4-4 with the boundary drop, if Engine 31 (Central Davis) is on a call, say on Sycamore Lane, one of Engine 32 (West) or Engine 33 (South) will still be positioned downtown. The city’s dispatchers cannot move Engine 34 (UCD) off campus to await city calls.
Neither of the ambitious young Democrats bothered to argue that we are not better off with a decoupled rescue truck. They did, however, state the obvious that, all else held equal, “four is better than three.”
But if that is their argument, then five is better than four. Perhaps we should have eight union jobs per engine?
The question all along has been how can we most efficiently use the limited resources we have to provide for public safety and other needs in Davis?
Because the council majority did adopt the Kenley plan, we will save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and we will improve public safety. We will have faster average response times to all calls, including first-alarm fires, which make up just 1.54 percent of Davis Fire Department responses, and medical emergencies, 65.12 percent.
Thanks to the power of the unions, however, that majority could not include the two Democrats on this council whose political interests trumped the city’s interests. Theirs was no profile in courage.
— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]