Firefighters are typically associated in the popular imagination with burning buildings, wildfires and disaster response.
These images, while valid, are increasingly becoming anachronistic in the Palo Alto Fire Department, where requests for medical service are now taking up more than half of all calls. Between July 2010 and June 2011, for example, the department responded to 14 residential structure fires. Over the same period, the department's paramedic staff made more than 3,000 ambulance transports, according to the city's Service Efforts and Accomplishments Report. Between July 2006 and June 2007, by contrast, the department had responded to 68 residential house fires and had made 2,527 ambulance transports, the report shows.
Faced with this trend in residents' needs, city officials are now making changes in the Fire Department, which is the only one in Santa Clara County that provides primary ambulance service. The changes include an expanded medical operation headed by a chief and a new full-time ambulance, a greater emphasis on emergency planning and six fewer firefighters of the traditional, blaze-snuffing variety.
City Manager James Keene outlined the plan in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1. The City Council is set to approve a budget on June 18.
The changes would enable the department's medical staff to respond to three calls at the same time, up from two, according to the budget.
The sweeping proposal would also raise the level of oversight and data analysis for medical response. Under the budget proposal, the Fire Department would get a new data specialist for medical service and a geographic-information specialist. The department's Emergency Medical Services coordinator would be elevated to a newly created position -- the Emergency Medical Services chief.
These major shifts in the Fire Department were prompted by a series of factors, most notably the growing number of medical calls. They are also driven by recommendations by an independent study the city commissioned last year to analyze the city's fire operations. The report by TriData and the ICMA Center for Public Safety Excellence flagged a number of shortcomings in the department's training and disaster-preparedness programs and recommended a greater emphasis on medical response. The study noted that the total number of emergency medical incidents went up from 2,742 in 2000 to 4,070 in 2009, a 48 percent increase.
The consultants specifically recommended the new medical-services positions and a greater consolidation of the administrative functions in the city's police and fire departments, which the city is also undertaking in the new budget proposal.
Assistant City Manager Pam Antil presented the proposed changes to the City Council's Finance Committee on May 15 and said that the goal of the shift is to place existing resources where they're needed most. The city, she said, is "really try(ing) to rethink how we deliver services in Fire." Officials studied the recommendations in the consultants' report for more than a year, she said, before formulating their recommendations.
But while the medical-response operation will be bolstered, the city also plans to eliminate six firefighter positions out of a 102-person operations staff, a cut made possible after voters last year abolished the longstanding minimum-staffing requirement from the firefighter union's contract. The change means the city is no longer obligated to have 29 firefighters on duty at all time and has more flexibility in setting staffing levels. Now, if the number of firefighters on duty were to fall short on a given day because of unexpected absences, the city can take a fire engine out of service (before, firefighters would get paid overtime to fill in for their absent colleagues).
But the flexibility comes at a price. One of the department's proposals calls for using a fire engine at Station 2 on Hanover Street as the department's backup engine when another station's unit is taken out of service. (Station 2's engine and personnel would be deployed to the other station.)
Deputy Chief Geoffrey Blackshire told the Finance Committee that the Station 2 engine was chosen because of its central location, in the Stanford Research Park. When Engine 2 is deployed, it would be up to the rescue truck at Station 2 to respond to most of the calls in the immediate area. And while the rescue unit is equipped to extricate people from vehicles and to respond to incidents involving hazardous materials, it is not equipped with a water supply. This has led some residents in the nearby College Terrace neighborhood to raise alarms about the decrease in service at their nearest station.
Fred Balin, a member of the College Terrace Residents Association, is among the critics. Balin attended both Finance Committee meetings in which the changes to the Fire Department were discussed and criticized the proposal to use Engine 2 as a backup vehicle for other stations.
"Shutting down one of the city's and Stanford's six 24/7 engine companies is a major policy decision requiring clear and detailed explanation, public outreach and adequate discussion," Balin said. "Rather, it has been slipped into the proposed budget with almost none of that."
City officials, for their part, dispute any suggestion that the shift in the Fire Department would put the neighborhood in danger. Keene stressed at the Finance Committee's May 29 meeting that Station 2 stands in close proximity to other fire stations, including Station 5 on Arastradero Road and Station 6 on Serra Street at Stanford University. City officials had also noted that Station 2, despite its central location, actually gets fewer service calls than almost any other station in the city. According to the TriData and ICMA report, the engine at Station 2 had the second-fewest number of responses in 2009, trailing only Station 5 (this does not include Station 7, a fire station at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory that the city is shutting down this year).
"We don't anticipate that this is going to in any way endanger any of our residents or the community at large," Antil said at the May 29 meeting.