Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bob Dunning: There has to be a better way


From page A2 | December 11, 2013 | 5 Comments

Thanks to a concerned citizen named Erin who wondered “what in the world is going on?” I headed out to the Veterans’ Memorial Center about 8 p.m. on a frigid Monday evening.
It was there I encountered a long line of potential city of Davis firefighters, bundled up as best they could on one of the coldest nights of the year for the right to be one of the first 125 applicants for firefighter positions that are not yet open.
They told me they planned to be there all night to ensure a shot at one of the coveted firefighter jobs when the doors opened at 8:30 the next morning.
First-come, first-served, they said, no exceptions. Too bad for those potential firefighters who for a variety of reasons were unable to spend the night in line.
“This is a test of our dedication and our endurance,” one of them told me. “It you want this job badly enough, you’ll figure out a way to be here.”
While dedication and endurance are no doubt requirements of the position, it seems this first-come, first-served rule might be eliminating some otherwise promising candidates.
I mean, do we hire our city manager this way or our cops or our recreation leaders? Do we make them stand in line all night to prove their dedication and endurance? Is this really the best way to find the most qualified candidates?
First-come, first-served may work well for Baskin-Robbins and Lady Gaga concerts, but I can think of a dozen better ways to screen candidates for critical public safety jobs in town.
But, just as I was about to call Starbucks and order up 125 double lattes for my newfound frozen friends, I decided to contact officialdom to see if this was really the way we ought to be doing business in Davis.
I sent a quick email to Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk, knowing that a prompt reply was a virtual certainty. Dan forwarded my email to City Manager Steve Pinkerton, who responded quicker than you can say “frozen firefighters.”
“While there is no perfect way to administer the test,” Pinkerton wrote, “many agencies have found that this is the lesser of evils. We’ve been doing it this way since the mid-’90s.”
Obviously time to try something new.
Added Pinkerton: “The problem is that there are far too many qualified candidates. If we were to hold an open recruitment, we would likely end up accepting applications from several thousand applicants — of which about 85 percent would end up passing the exam. The testing process alone would cost the city over $30,000. We would likely need to spend double that in staff time to screen and interview all of the qualified applicants.”
Fair enough, but there’s a way to have your cake and eat it, too.
Just put the word out through your usual channels that all applications for the firefighter test are due by such and such date at 5 p.m.
Once the date passes and everyone has had an equal chance to apply, simply pull 125 names out of the hat and proceed to test those 125 fortunate souls. No standing in line, no first-come, first-served, no added expense, but the same result.
In the city’s defense, Pinkerton noted that “This is the first time we’ve had applicants show up the day before the test. We were expecting folks to line up well before 8:30 a.m., but this is a first.”
And, to his everlasting credit, upon hearing of the long line of potential firefighters camped out on the frozen tundra, Pinkerton immediately ordered the Vets’ Memorial to open up for the night so everyone could at least stretch out and stay warm.
There are a million reasons Pinkerton could have declined to open the building — security, staffing, lack of proper planning, liability — but he saw a clear and present need and responded accordingly.
It was still first-come, first-served, however, for those wishing to use the bathrooms.

— Reach Bob Dunning at


Discussion | 5 comments

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  • Andrea CastroDecember 11, 2013 - 8:11 am

    Normally in better conditions that would not have been a problem. However the Davis Fire Dept knew about the coming frigid weather. My concern is that isn't this department function to promote the safe and well being of our citizens? So where was it on Tuesday? The fact that they did not even try and accomodate the individuals suffering in that cold for that one position is so wrong. From what I understand (from someone that waited in line) the building was open only when a police officer told them to. However, it was only short lived, because they were soon asked to leave the building while they set up. So, was this really the best way to handle this? I certainly do not think so. I think the Davis Fire Dept. should be a little embarrassed.

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  • RDecember 11, 2013 - 11:26 am

    The city manager is wrong! Every test that has been held people have camped out overnight and it has been well documented on local news stations. This is an outdated testing process and just another poor decision made by the fire and city administration. It's impossible to get the most qualified applicants through this process. Mr. Dunning made an excellent point with the random drawing. Santa Clara County Fire just had an application process with close to 10,000 applicants and they used a random drawing to fill the test slots. I find it interesting that the city would spend ANY money on a test when the the fire department was asked to come up with a plan to cut $900K from it's budget.

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  • WilliamDecember 11, 2013 - 12:51 pm

    A couple things to comment here, first I'm pretty sure the fire department has no control over any of the hiring process and how it's done. So to put the blame on them for this is absurd. That sounds like a upper management problem. Not sure why the city is even hiring for fire position since the city wants to cut 900k from the fire department. 900k isn't some amount you can just trim off. If they want that whole amount that only means that's going to cut positions from an already understaffed department. I see they're on 1984 staffing levels but now have twice as many calls as then! Second, for the city manager to say this is the first time they've ever had anybody wait out in line the day before is a complete lie, but then again I guess that's in his normal track record. I know for a fact when I moved here to Davis in 1999 that I drove around checking out all the schools that my children will be attending I saw a huge line then too. I stopped and asked what was going on and was shortly informed that they were waiting for one of the 125 spots. It doesn't take much to open up a computer and google some history on news stories that have been coved on this subject multiple times. I guess this is just another example how terrible this city manager is for our town and it's employees and future employees.

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  • Rich RifkinDecember 11, 2013 - 4:08 pm

    "Not sure why the city is even hiring for fire position since the city wants to cut 900k from the fire department. 900k isn't some amount you can just trim off." …….. William, to get to that dollar savings, there are a number of changes in the firefighter contracts which the City is trying to enact. (These changes have been agreed to by the police officers and all other city employees, though in the case of DCEA the changes are being involuntarily imposed.) The changes begin with a reform in what is called cafeteria cash-out. A couple of years ago, the system (for all city employees) was a full cash-out of all unused benefit. If the maximum benefit was $20,000 per year and the employee used none of that, he would get $20,000 in cash on top of his salary and other compensation. If he used $5,000 for his medical plan, he would get to keep the other $15,000 in cash. In total, the cash-outs were costing the City about $4 million per year and rising. The reform that is in place for all the others but fire now is a cash-out cap of $6,000 per year. The full benefit is roughly $21,000 (that is the latest number for all but fire; the fire union has a higher benefit, worth about $22,500 or so). So if an employee takes a medical plan which costs $6,000 or more, he will get no cash-out. (This is still not the case. The reform is being phased in over a few years.) But if the employee's plan costs less than $6,000 (many employees are on their spouse's plans and thus take no medical benefit from the City), the employee will get a full cash-out up to $6,000 per year.

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  • Rich RifkinDecember 11, 2013 - 4:09 pm

    ……. There are somewhere around 40 employees--I am not sure the exact number now--whose medical benefit is set by the firefighter contract. So the medical benefit for them presently costs the City approximately $800,000. If the cash-out is reformed in the manner that the other employees have it, that cost should be cut in half to approximately $400,000. ……. Additionally, a huge expense for the City in paying the firefighters is funding their pensions. I don't know off the top of my head what the percentage is at present for the City. But I believe it is approximately 25%, this year (and it is projected to go up to about 38% by 2021). That means, for a firefighter now making $100,000 in base salary, the City must pay another $25,000 to CalPERS to fund his pension. On top of that, the firefighter must pay $9,000 (or 9%). The DPOA for the last few years has agreed to pay 12% to fund police officer pensions. The City wants fire to match that. If the City succeeds, it will save $3,000 per $100,000 in firefighter salaries. …….. And there are some other smaller contract reforms being pursued, which will save more money, too.

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