Original post made by Fred Balin, College Terrace, on Jun 21, 2020
Palo Alto and Stanford Resident,
Palo Alto Business Owner and Business Employee,
For the first time in memory, at least one of the Palo Alto Fire Department’s (PAFD) six fire engines, will not be available for service on nights and weekends if the normal complement of firefighters for a shift is not available under a proposal set to come to the city council for approval tomorrow evening (Monday, June 22).
In potential cascading impacts, if more than one firefighter is unavailable on a night or weekend, a second apparatus, e.g., an ambulance, may also be taken out service, a fire station “browned out,” and so on, and so forth. The designated first fire station to feel this impact will be Station 2 on Hanover Street, due to its lower call volume.
Fire Chief Geo Blackshire acknowledged that under this new “flexible resources model,” response times will increase as a result. The plan follows the city council’s decision to assume a worst-case-scenario revenue drop due to the pandemic and resultant dollar-amount budget targets presented by City Manager Ed Shikada to public safety and other service department heads for them to determine implementation.
There are, however, no proposed reductions that I know of to the city’s capital improvement budget!
The current plan also includes the loss of 8 firefighter positions; eliminating a deputy chief and administrative positions; potential new sources of revenue; and firefighter salary concessions (expected to be finalized tomorrow in closed session with the city council).
The potential evening and weekend loss of staffing, apparatus, and stations result in a projected savings of $811,000 due to the elimination of overtime used to backfill absences. While paying overtime costs more in the short term, it is deemed less expensive than paying working-year wages and post-retirement health and pension benefits. Hence the double-edged sword: reducing positions reduces services as well as long-term costs, while increasing overtime maintains service levels via backfill and increases short term costs.
While the city has drastically cut PAFD personnel and therefore services over recent years, it has always backfilled staffing with overtime to maintain a minimum of 3 firefighters at all times at the five fire stations in Palo Alto, each with an engine, and three with an ambulance. The sixth station within PAFD, “Station 6” on Stanford Campus at Serra Street, holds an engine an ambulance, and the ladder truck. Under the city’s contract for fire services with Stanford at least 5 firefighters must be there at all times. Any change would require contract renegotiation.
Years of cuts have left the PAFD system at a breaking point. As Chief Blackshire pointed out, a recent “medium-level” response fire at “The Dish” and a simultaneous medical emergency depleted all fire resources.
Station 2 covers the wings from 101 on one end to 280 and Skyline Boulevard at the other. It’s specialized rescue vehicle and staff were disbanded several year ago. The hazmat vehicle is on the premises. Dedicated daytime fire-season staffing in the foothills was eliminated several years; now it’s red-flag days only; otherwise, this is city’s closest 1st response.
Across stations engines with dedicated 24x7x365 staffing have been moved to cross-staffing with ambulances: one vehicle goes out at a time. Now this proposal:no longer any safety net around the flesh left; just bone.
When we are short-staffed, we do have mutual agreements with County Fire, Menlo Park, and Mountain View. But the latter, has complained in the past about being on the short end of the stick after PAFD budget and service cuts. As far as I know, Mountain View has not reduced fire protection this time around.
Other aspects of the proposal also raise eyebrows and questions.
1. The elimination of two fire inspector positions.
Funded 80% by PAFD budget and 20% by Planning and Development Services, these are revenue generating positions that pay for themselves, and there is plenty of need for them particularly in light of mandated building codes, sites that contain hazard materials, and other reasons. The city manager needs to step in.
2. Of the eight positions to be eliminated, four are already accounted for. The city is offering retirement buyouts to other firefighters with a December 31 deadline. Layoffs operate under a strict seniority policy; last in, first out. There are five young firefighters who have come through the rigorous training academy and are now in their 18-month probationary period. At least one, maybe all, will be let go. What a waste of investment time and energy. A similar situation applies in the Police Department.
3. Additional PAFD department revenue generating opportunities include:
– First Responder Fee. This attaches a fee for medical assistance. Currently the city only receives revenue when there is a transport to a medical facility.
– First Responder Fee. The chief stated this was geared toward business, but did not provide details. It is important to know that this is not a priority, pay-for-services plan accessible to only a few, and therefore, at the expense of service to the rest of the community.
Major emergencies do not take time off for evenings and weekends. A full, effective response is required to stop a structure or wild
land fire, no matter how infrequent it is.