Whether Davis retains its current model of 12 firefighters per shift, or reduces that force to 11, should be part of the budget talks slated for this spring, the Davis City Council concluded late Tuesday night.
Council members said that is the appropriate time to decide whether staffing its fire engines with three firefighters instead of four — saving an estimated $360,000 per year but possibly affecting service levels at some fire scenes — is the direction they want to go.
After a three-hour round-table discussion, the council unanimously set a June 30 deadline to vote on the staffing issue, with a mandatory check-in at its May 14 meeting. A proposed budget is scheduled to be introduced on April 9.
“It gives more time for everyone to be educated and look at all the aspects of how we’re going to provide service to the community,” Bobby Weist, president of Davis Firefighters Local 3494, said of the delay. “We’re not opposed to changing the way we do things; however, the model that we’ve been using has been providing good service.”
Davis has operated with four-person crews since 1999, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration implemented its “two-in, two-out” mandate that says for every two firefighters who enter a burning structure, two others must be outside and prepared to assist, except for situations requiring a rescue.
The proposed change to three-person engine companies stems from an audit completed last fall by then-Interim Fire Chief Scott Kenley, who suggested the cash-strapped city could annually save $360,000 by removing one firefighter per shift from each of the city’s three fire stations and adding a two-person rescue unit downtown that could respond separately to emergencies as needed.
Coupled with the council’s January approval of a proposed boundary drop between the city and UC Davis fire departments, the staffing change would increase the level of service to the community by providing more resources to respond to calls, Kenley said.
Davis firefighters have cautioned against Kenley’s staffing proposal, saying it increases the risk of property damage when a crew must wait for backup to arrive before attacking a fire (Kenley acknowledged this but said it would be rare). Firefighter safety also would be compromised, they contend.
“What are you going to do with $350,000 that’s more important than a life?” Davis fire Capt. Joe Tenney asked.
Council members appeared split on the issue. Some said they were swayed by the benefits of four-person crews, while others said shaking up the status quo is necessary in an era where the city is faced with public swimming pool closures and a $20 million street-maintenance backlog.
“When you’re spending $9 1/2 million a year on your Fire Department, it’s worth taking a look at,” Mayor Joe Krovoza said. Whether for the staffing change or against, “you have to be thinking about the entire city of Davis, the entire spectrum of services that we offer.”
Councilman Lucas Frerichs, who along with Councilwoman Rochelle Swanson sits on the committee that’s implementing the city-UCD boundary drop, said he’d prefer to see that matter progress before tinkering with staffing numbers.
“I don’t see why we would bite off all this at once,” Frerichs said.
Several council members also noted that pushing ahead on the staffing issue could complicate the ongoing contract negotiations between the city and firefighters’ union, hinting that those talks possibly could result in another source of budget savings.
But whether salary concessions is something the union is considering, Weist wouldn’t say.
“We’ll see where the negotiations go,” he said. “I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I’m sure we’ll come to some type of agreement.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at email@example.com or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene