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Fire Department audit suggests cost-saving efficiencies

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From page A1 | November 20, 2012 |

A cost-saving scenario in which the Davis Fire Department reduces staffing at two of its stations to three-person crews has some local firefighters feeling hot under the collar.

The proposal is contained in a 165-page audit authored by Interim Fire Chief Scott Kenley and presented to the Davis City Council at its meeting last week.

In it, Kenley says the department can achieve annual savings ranging from $360,000 to $560,000 by staffing Davis’ three fire stations with a total of 10 or 11 personnel rather than the status quo of 12, which has been the city’s policy since 1999.

For example, the city could assign five personnel to the department’s headquarters on Fifth Street and three each at the West and South Davis fire stations, or four downtown and three at the outlying stations. Kenley also envisioned a staffing model in which the 10-personnel shifts are boosted when extreme weather conditions — heat, wind, low humidity — create increased risk for grass fires.

The department’s current practice of overstaffing its stations to fill in for firefighters who take vacation or other time off also should be discontinued in favor of bringing back firefighters on overtime, which also could result in cost savings, the report says.

Davis fire Capt. Bobby Weist, who spoke on behalf of a group of firefighters attending the meeting, said the city can expect to see skyrocketing overtime costs and firefighter “wear and tear” if three-person crews become a reality.

“The flavor of this report seems to be money,” said Weist, president of the firefighters’ union, Local 3494. “Nowhere in there did it say that it’s going to improve the service, that it’s going to give the citizens a better service than they’re already getting.”

A suggestion by Kenley that the city relax its boundaries and dispatch a UC Davis Fire Department engine crew, in addition to the university’s ladder truck, for first-alarm structure fires “completely depletes the city,” Weist said. “We have a large amount of simultaneous calls.”

Council members took no action on the report last week, citing the late hour — nearly 11:30 p.m. by the time Kenley concluded his presentation. Instead, they offered brief comments and instructed staff to schedule a future meeting dedicated to an in-depth discussion of the issues the audit raises.

They include the potential for seeking reimbursement for medical-aid services the Fire Department provides — which according to Kenley make up as much as 70 percent of the agency’s calls.

“I would like to see that pursued,” Councilwoman Rochelle Swanson said. “It would be nice to know that we were able to see reimbursement for our services, especially if that is a majority of the responses that we have.”

As for the city’s relatively low number of large structure fires, “there’s a good reason we have less large fires, and it’s because we have adequate personnel to actually attack those fires before they become larger fires,” Councilman Lucas Frerichs noted.

City leaders approved the increase from three- to four-member fire crews at the West and South Davis stations in April 1999, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its “two-in, two-out” mandate that says for every two firefighters who enter a burning building or rescue situation, two others should remain outside, poised to help in case of emergency.

Keeping four firefighters at every station eliminated the need for a crew to wait for backup to arrive before making that initial entry.

But that’s when Davis, like much of the country, was enjoying strong financial health. When the economy tanked several years ago, city leaders began seeking a variety of measures for trimming the town budget. Talk of reducing fire-crew sizes has proved controversial, however.

“We keep talking about providing excellent services as a city … but I’m not sure we can continue to do it if the emphasis is just on downsizing,” Frerichs said at last week’s council meeting. “There’s trade-offs there, certainly.”

Mayor Joe Krovoza, however, added that the city already has seen its workforce diminished from 425 to 375 employees in just a couple of years’ time.

“Our ability to pay and retain our current employees simply means we have to be as smart as possible across the board,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing at every level of this city — it’s not exclusive to fire.”

Meanwhile, Kenley’s audit also casts doubt on the feasibility of what’s been considered another potential money-saving measure: a merger with the UCD Fire Department that would enable the agencies to share personnel, training activities, policies and procedures.

Those efforts began in the summer of 2010 and eventually saw the consolidation of the two agencies’ dispatch services, but were placed on hold earlier this year due to a variety of issues, including at the time the city’s ongoing firefighter contract negotiations.

In his report, Kenley notes that a merger would create no new funding source and is, in fact, likely to be costly, as “legal counsel will have to be involved every step of the way.”

Both the city and the university have the added challenge of including and appeasing the various stakeholders that would be affected by a merger, including taxpayers, labor organizations, managers and elected officials.

“In the end, there is a strong likelihood that further attempts to fully merge the two fire departments into one agency will have the same results as previous attempts,” which were unsuccessful, Kenley wrote.

He suggested a possible alternative: merging the departments’ management teams, with the creation of a joint-powers authority as employer for the rank of division chief and above. Meanwhile, the city may want to hold off on its recruitment of a new fire chief “if the ultimate goal is the reduction of one chief officer position.”

— Reach Lauren Keene at lkeene@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene

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