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Pinkerton proposes sharing fire chief with UCD; union wary

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From page A1 | October 13, 2013 |

Learn more:

What: Davis City Council meeting

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Community Chambers at City Hall, 23 Russell Blvd.

Watch it live: Comcast Channel 16; AT&T U-Verse Channel 99; www.cityofdavis.org/media

Regular agenda items of note: Shared fire management recommendations, affordable housing work plan

As tensions continue to ratchet up between city management and the Davis Professional Firefighters Association Local 3494, the city may further stoke the fires this week with a recommendation to the City Council to share a fire chief with UC Davis.

If the council approves the move, it would reorganize management so that both the city’s and the university’s fire departments would be coordinated and run by UCD Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht.

Two deputy chiefs — one to oversee joint training and the other to run the day-to-day operations of the departments — and three division chiefs would support him.

“This is just the logical next evolution of (cooperation between the departments), where these guys are essentially functioning as one team to meet the fire needs of this fire district,” City Manager Steve Pinkerton said Friday. “This further cements the coordination between the different engine companies and the ladder truck.”

Pinkerton says shared management could save the city $78,000 annually, with the potential of more than $200,000 if the city can move all of its division chiefs to the university’s benefits package.

Davis firefighters earn about $50,000 more in benefits than university firefighters, while salaries are relatively the same, according to city numbers.

But there’s more to this potential agreement than money.

Pinkerton says service to both the city and the university would improve under this new joint management structure. The shared management plan would follow on the heels of recent decisions to drop the call boundary between city and campus and re-work the staffing levels at Davis’ three fire stations.

“What we tried to do is to have far more adequate coverage at all times, so we’ve done that,” Pinkerton said. “And then on top of that, here we’re going to increase management. I think we’re creating far better service by essentially combining the operations of the two departments.”

Perhaps a secondary reason for the recommendation, however, is the pressure from the local fire union to finally install a full-time chief after more than three years of operation without one.

Pinkerton said in his report, while it could take several months to finalize the joint powers agreement that would spell out the details of the new structure between the city and UCD, Trauernicht could take over management of the city’s fire department in the short-term.

Union concerns

The city manager hopes the quick transition will address the union’s concerns.

But according to Bobby Weist, fire union president, he and the members of the union are not yet sold on the shared-management plan.

Rather than only combining management of the two departments, Weist believes the two departments would work better together if the city and the university agreed to a full merger.

Instead, Weist says, under the city’s proposal, the UCD fire chief would be put in the position of working for two different bosses.

“(Trauernicht would be) working for the university and working for the city of Davis,” Weist said. “Our policies, or the way we do things, are different than the university’s. They have their policy on how they do things, we have policies on the way we do things.

“When you work at the Fire Department you have to work as a team. You don’t play on two teams, you play for one team,” he continued. “To me, if we were able to merge the full department, we’d be able to locate stations, we’d have unified training, it would be a united department.”

In addition to the shared-management recommendation, Pinkerton describes in his report the details of a full merger of the two departments. To implement a merger, Pinkerton said, it would cost UCD an extra $1.3 million per year because of the heftier benefits awarded to city firefighters.

In addition to the added cost to the university, it makes sense practically to consolidate the departments this way, Pinkerton said.

“It’s just simpler to keep the employees as the employees of that city (or agency),” Pinkerton said. “But (a merger) is irrelevant to how they operate on an emergency because these guys are all training together; it really shouldn’t matter who they work for.”

Campus in favor

Joe Newman, president of UC Davis Firefighters IAFF Local 4920, recently wrote a letter to city and university officials to say the university’s firefighters “wholeheartedly support” the shared-management structure.

Newman said, when under the leadership of a single chief, it’s “apparent how both departments could operate more efficiently and effectively, thus providing a better service to both the campus and city communities.”

Meanwhile, the disagreement between city management and the city’s fire union is only the latest in a series of issues that firefighters say have caused morale to deteriorate department-wide.

For the past few months, firefighters have picketed outside City Hall before City Council meetings to air their many concerns with the way the city has operated the Fire Department.

During the council’s discussions over whether to reduce staffing levels earlier this year — along with the boundary drop, which came in a package of recommendations by the city’s former Interim Fire Chief Scott Kenley — firefighters said it would dramatically reduce fire service in the city and could potentially put firefighters’ and residents’ lives in danger.

The union also has voiced concerns about relocating the downtown fire station at Fifth and E Streets farther north in Davis. The city believes moving the station may better cover the parts of Davis — northeast and northwest — that fall outside of preferred four-minute response-time standards.

Finally, underscoring its deep dissatisfaction, in July the union unanimously took a vote of “no confidence” in Police Chief Landy Black and Assistant Police Chief Steve Pierce, who were asked to oversee the department earlier this year while the city looked into its options for management.

“There are all these variables that we’re (dealing with) and is it going to make for a better workplace? No,” Weist said. “And not just a better workplace, but better service to the community? I don’t think so.”

A first step

When asked about members of the Fire Department going public with their concerns, Pinkerton said he hoped the new proposed management structure would be the first step toward improving the situation.

“We’re anxious to get a management team in place because they haven’t had a fire chief in a long time,” Pinkerton said.

“It’s part of the reason I’ve been pretty anxious to bring this forward, so we can resolve the situation and try and marry our goals of budget discipline and the service to the community, and to try to make sure that we do it in a way where our employees want to come to work.”

— Reach Tom Sakash at tsakash@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash

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Tom Sakash

Tom Sakash covers the city beat for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at tsakash@davisenterprise.net, (530) 747-8057 or @TomSakash.
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