Stanford University is looking around for a new provider of firefighting services, a move that could transform or even end the university's nearly four-decade-long relationship with the Palo Alto Fire Department.
The university put out a request of proposals in late November for an agency that would provide fire-department services, including firefighting, paramedic and "specialty-response," to its 4,000-acre property in unincorporated Santa Clara County. The campus includes roughly 700 university buildings and 965 single-family residences. The request has a deadline of Jan. 31, and Palo Alto expects to submit its proposal next month, city Fire Chief Eric Nickel told the Weekly.
Stanford's search could have significant repercussions for Palo Alto's fire department, whether or not the university agrees to continue to rely on Palo Alto's services. The two fire departments, Stanford's and Palo Alto's, merged in 1976 as part of an effort by the university to save money and upgrade its firefighting force. The merger came in the wake of a 1972 fire that destroyed a wing at Encina Hall and drew about 250 responders from throughout the area.
The emergency-services partnership has been in place ever since. In addition to providing Stanford with emergency-dispatch and ambulance services, Palo Alto firefighters staff Station 6 on the university's campus. For that, the city is amply compensated. The Fire Department draws 30 percent of its revenues from Stanford University, though the campus draws only about 25 percent of the department's responses, Nickel said.
However, Stanford also receives 30 percent of all of the revenues the department collects from customers, whether or not these calls pertain to the campus.
Whether or not Stanford opts to stay with Palo Alto next year, this long-standing but somewhat rudimentary formula will probably fall by the wayside. From the city's perspective, that might not be a bad thing. Nickel said the Fire Department, much like the university, would like to see some changes in the agreement and noted that the request-for-proposals process will give both parties an avenue for addressing these changes.
Nickel said the department fully expected Stanford to shop around for other providers at some point and called the university's search a "great business practice." Specifically, Nickel said, the department would like to see more staffing flexibility and more provisions relating to fire prevention and inspections. For instance, the city currently monitors about 500 fire alarm systems at Stanford, Nickel said. Educating the campus community about ways to prevent false alarms would create a "huge opportunity to drop the call volume."
He also noted that the call volume from Stanford falls significantly during holiday periods, when students go home for vacation, and spikes during weekends, particularly when there is a big football game. It would be worthwhile to consider these factors in determining staffing levels, he said.
Both Stanford and Palo Alto acknowledge that the university's needs have changed since the partnership had begun. Most of the 1,248 calls that the Palo Alto Fire Department responded to on Stanford campus in 2012 related to medical services and false alarms. The request for proposals notes that Stanford "has not suffered from serious fires over many decades."
According to the request for proposals, Stanford is looking for an initial contract with a five-year term, with automatic five-year renewals thereafter for "acceptable performance." Cancellation of a contract would require at least a 12-month notice. According to Stanford's proposed schedule, the university would approve the new contract by next April.
Even if other agencies submit the bids, Palo Alto would hold several key advantages. The most important is location. Because the city has several fire stations at and near Stanford, it is best positioned to meet Stanford's response-times requirements. The request for proposals specifies that for medical calls and small fires, the first unit of responders should arrive within 7 minutes from the receipt of the 911 call 90 percent of the time. This account for a minute of dispatch time, 2 minutes of "company turnout time" and 4 minutes drive time "to the most populated areas in the main campus in unincorporated Santa Clara County." Even though at least four personnel from the contracting agency would occupy Stanford's fire station, incidents that require additional staff would probably involve more driving and a longer response time.
The fact that the city already provides other emergency services to Stanford should also strengthen its negotiating position. If the university opts to switch to a different fire department, fire calls would still be dispatched to Palo Alto before being transferred to the new agency, lengthening the response time.
Stanford also made it clear in the request for proposals that it only desires to contract with "another full service, public fire department," which further constrains the potential applicant pool.
"I believe at the end of the day we will still be their fire department, but it's going to look very different," Nickel said.
"This would be the biggest change since the contract took effect," he said.
The issue of a new contract came up on Tuesday night, when the City Council Finance Committee was discussing the Fire Department's overtime expenditures. City Manager James Keene told the committee that the city and Stanford had been in ongoing negotiations over the past year about continuing "our old agreement."
"They chose to, I think it's fair to say, go out and test the marketplace and see what's out there," Keene said.
Nickel noted at the meeting that the department now has several open positions, which it is reluctant to fill until the situation with Stanford is resolved.
"We are being deliberate in not filling those positions until we better understand what the long-term relationship will be moving forward with Stanford," Nickel said.