A shared-management concept for the Davis and UC Davis fire departments, as well as a pitch to relax the boundaries between the two agencies, got the green light Tuesday from the Davis City Council. So did a modification of the city’s fire response-time goals.
But the most controversial proposal before the council — to reduce the city’s fire-engine staffing from four firefighters to three — will have to wait for another day.
As the clock crept toward midnight, council members opted to postpone their discussion of fire staffing levels, given the late hour and, with nearly two dozen firefighters in the audience, the considerable debate the issue was expected to generate.
“It’s not a time where we can make good policy on such an important issue to the community,” Mayor Joe Krovoza said.
Tuesday’s discussion — a roundtable format involving council members, city and UCD administrators and representatives of the Davis firefighters union, Local 3494 — stemmed from a lengthy Fire Department audit prepared last fall by then-Interim Fire Chief Scott Kenley.
Kenley left the city earlier this month after maximizing the number of post-retirement hours he was allowed to work for the city of Davis, and City Manager Steve Pinkerton appointed Police Chief Landy Black to temporarily oversee the Fire Department.
In his report, Kenley concluded that while the Davis community enjoys a high level of fire service, there are several areas within the department that have room for improvement: staffing, management, response times and boundaries between the city and UCD.
Although Davis and UCD explored the potential for a full merger of their fire departments in late 2011 and early 2012 — even consolidating their dispatch services — that process was placed on hold in light of firefighter salary discrepancies between the two agencies. In his audit, Kenley said while a complete merger was unlikely to succeed due to various issues, both departments could benefit financially from sharing a single chief and administration.
The council agreed, voting to defer the city’s search for a permanent fire chief for six months while the shared management plan is explored. They also approved the hiring of a consultant to facilitate the process, though Bobby Weist, president of Local 3494, balked when the discussion turned to Kenley possibly serving in that post.
“To me it doesn’t pass the smell test, to have the person who implements these proposals be the person that wrote them,” Weist said. “There’s potential for the appearance of a conflict.”
Councilman Brett Lee said while Kenley should be in the running due to his expertise on the issues, “we (should) look around and see who else is out there,” receiving input from the university in the process.
The council also gave the go-ahead to study a boundary drop between Davis and UCD that would enable campus fire crews to respond to more incidents within the Davis city limits, and vice versa. John Meyer, UCD’s vice chancellor for administrative and resource management, said it’s a move he’s advocated for years, and one that will result in better service to both communities.
“Do they care what brand the engine has … when somebody’s having a stroke or a heart attack?” Meyer said.
Kenley said erasing those boundaries may help the city better meet its response-time goals, which also saw changes during Tuesday’s discussion.
Currently, Davis’ General Plan calls for a five-minute response time between the initial call for service and the point the first fire crew arrives on scene. According to Kenley, that goal is being met only 42 percent of the time — far short of the desired 90 percent.
Kenley recommended an increase to seven minutes, which he described as more “realistic” since Davis fire crews already meet that goal 82 percent of the time. Council members, however, voted to approve a six-minute, 20-second response time for first-alarm fires (and six minutes for all other calls) set forth by the National Fire Protection Association, and to re-evaluate its effectiveness in a year’s time.
Increasing the response goal “changes the report card, so to speak,” Kenley said. “It’s not going to affect the delivery of services to the community.”
While all three of the council’s votes Tuesday passed with relatively little controversy, the staffing debate is not expected to go quite so smoothly.
City leaders approved four-person fire crews in 1999 after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its “two-in, two-out” mandate for firefighters in emergency situations. But that was long before the country’s economic downturn, and critics say the fire staffing levels are no longer compatible with Davis’ financial reality.
Under Kenley’s recommendation, the Fire Department’s daily staffing levels would go from 12 firefighters to 11, with three-person engine crews at the downtown, West Davis and South Davis fire stations, as well as a two-person crew on a rescue unit assigned to the Fifth Street headquarters. Estimated savings: $360,000 per year.
Typically dispatched in tandem with a fire engine, the rescue vehicle could be designated a stand-alone unit and could respond to incidents with the West and South Davis fire engines if needed, Kenley suggests.
But members of Local 3494 have opposed the reduction, saying it would increase safety risks to firefighters and damage to burning structures if fire crews, waiting for backup to arrive, are delayed in making their initial attack on a blaze.
“At some point the city has to consider investing more into their services,” Davis fire Capt. Joe Tenney said. “I think we all want the best services for our community. The firefighters are no different.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene