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Is it always sunnier in Sunnyvale?

By From page A6 | January 16, 2013

Since we have so few fires in Davis, is it time to get rid of the Fire Department altogether?

Last week, the city announced that Interim Fire Chief Scott Kenley had stepped aside and Police Chief Landy Black will now run both public safety departments.

City Manager Steve Pinkerton clearly knows there is a good financial reason to consolidate the leadership of police and fire. Including salary, pension funding, family medical, retiree medical and other direct costs, a public safety boss costs the city of Davis about $255,000 a year. If we have both a fire chief and a police chief, that’s $510,000.

The experience of the last few years demonstrates that the person running the Davis Fire Department can handle another job at the same time. From September, 2010 to February 2012, Bill Weisgerber served as the fire chief for both the UC Davis and the city of Davis fire departments.

With Landy Black directing police and fire, and with Assistant Police Chief Steve Pierce overseeing administrative operations for each, the question arises whether it makes sense for Davis to merge police fire into one public safety department.

Doing that is not unprecedented.

Sunnyvale, for example, has a single Department of Public Safety. Not only does that city of 140,000 residents have one administration for its police, fire and dispatch services, Sunnyvale cross-trains all of its sworn personnel.

Each cop knows how to fight fires and provide emergency medical services; every firefighter is trained also to serve as a peace officer.

The Los Angeles Times wrote recently that Sunnyvale may become a new paradigm for more cities looking to integrate their public safety services.

“At a time of municipal budget crises, more cities are eyeing Sunnyvale’s model of cross-training all sworn personnel in police, fire and emergency medical services,” the Times reported.

“At least 130 now employ some form of public safety consolidation. Just in the last six months, Sunnyvale has been contacted by half a dozen entities that are looking into the idea, including Fairbanks, Alaska, two Southern California communities and a UC campus.”

The story in the L.A. Times said that while Sunnyvale’s per capita costs are $519 for public safety, its neighbors’ costs are much greater: Mountain View spends $683 and Palo Alto $950.

One reason the traditional model for a separate fire department is so expensive is the need to have a full force on-call 24-hours a day, even when there are no fires and on some days few medical calls.

According to the L.A. Times, fire departments nationwide in 2010 responded to 43 percent fewer fire calls than they did in 1983. Yet over that same period, the number of career firefighters increased by 48 percent.

Unlike in Davis, where we have four firefighters per truck on every shift, Sunnyvale only needs two per truck. When they fight fires, Sunnyvale sends police officers on patrol to join with their brethren arriving in fire trucks.

Before Scott Kenley stepped down, I asked him for his thoughts on public safety cross-training in Davis. He doesn’t think it would be a good fit for us.

Chief Kenley pointed out that, for a city of greater than 20,000 residents, Sunnyvale is more of an aberration than a model. He explained that Sunnyvale’s system began in the 1950s, when it had an all-volunteer fire department and only 10,000 residents. They began hiring professional cops to replace amateur firefighters.

“With respect to the City of Davis,” Kenley told me, “the problem of simultaneous calls would significantly impact both the delivery of fire and law enforcement services.”

I also asked Black his thoughts on more cross-training of public safety in Davis. While Chief Black believes that “public safety should always look at alternatives that provide more efficient overall public safety (and) look for opportunities to be good stewards of the public’s money while improving life and property safety,” he opposes merging the missions in Davis.

“New laws and doctrines keep our people so occupied with training that, combined with vacation and sick time, my conservative estimate is that we need at least five officers to do the job of four,” Chief Black said.

Chief Black’s biggest problem with cross-training is that the mentality needed to be a good firefighter is not the same as it takes to be a good cop, and vice versa.

“… The skills and temperaments of the types of people that make good and conscientious firefighters are in many ways entirely different than those of the good and conscientious police officers we’d want,” he said.

“Here in Davis … I go through a hundred or more potential candidates for police officer positions to eventually arrive at just a few (3-5) good candidates, that we’d be willing bring aboard.

“We then devote 4-6 months of close training — field training (post police academy), and another year or so of less intensely supervised training. And of those, a measurable percentage do not complete those training and probationary periods.”

Even if the Sunnyvale model is not right for Davis, we ought to use the experience of Black serving as our police and fire chief this year to decide if having one administration for the two departments is the best use of our city’s limited resources. Our public safety will be best served by efficiently spending our money.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]

Rich Rifkin

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