News

Stanford is shopping for firefighting service

University's request for proposals threatens to transform its long-standing relationship with Palo Alto

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.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 19, 2013 at 11:27 am

Gennady, thank you for following up with a great article and explanation on what's on the horizon for the PAFD. You story goes a long way in helping everyone understand the changes that will fundamentally change the PAFD in the next few years.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cid Young
a resident of another community
on Dec 19, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Article does not stat to whom the RFP's were addressed.

Wad CALFIRE invited to submit a proposal?

We have them on the Coastside, and they are very good, and quite cost-effective. They provide services to Wildland areas such as The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the new Tom Lantos (Devil's Slide) Tunnel and the City of Half Moon Bay and surrounding Unincorporated communities Montara, Moss Beach and El Granada. The also have a contract with San Mateo County for Fire Services - S.M.County Fire. They have lots of fire fighting equipment at their disposal such as bulldozers and helicopters and fire-supressant-dropping planes.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 19, 2013 at 3:57 pm

"They [CALFIRE] have lots of fire fighting equipment at their disposal such as bulldozers and helicopters and fire-supressant-dropping planes."

Perfect for a chem lab incident.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kathy
a resident of another community
on Dec 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm

@Cid Young
I now live on the coast--after 40 years in Palo Alto. There is no comparison between what Palo Alto needs and what the coast needs in terms of equipment, personnel, etc. etc. for more than "just" fighting fires.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by stanford resident
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 19, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Yippee - I hope we can get out from under Palo Alto as much as possible. First, the fire department - next PAUSD!!! How about a k-12 lab school like U of Chicago has? Would LOVE to kick PAUSD to the curb.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kathy
a resident of another community
on Dec 19, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Thank you Curmudgeon--
I definitely get you point. I hope others do, too.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kathy Hyde
a resident of another community
on Dec 19, 2013 at 6:07 pm

@Stanford resident-------------
Wow!! First the fire department, and *then* the PAUSD. That is a huge switcheroo. I definitely sense your anger..........
However, I hope you don't "take it out" on the Palo Alto fire dept. They are just trying to do their job, and do they do it very well.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Native
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 19, 2013 at 6:10 pm

@Stanford Resident: Palo Alto would LOVE to get out from under Stanford, and have the offspring out of our schools!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by stanford resident
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 19, 2013 at 6:23 pm

I'm not angry - I'm gleefully happy to not be a resident of Palo Alto.

Palo Alto Fire Department does their job very well - and I never said they didn't - my remark is toward the City of Palo Alto and the multiple bad decisions made by the city council on a range of issues. I think Stanford and by extension, Stanford residents would be wise to untangle as much as possible from the city.

as for PAUSD - just wishful thinking…. 25 Churchill is a disaster…Skelly is…well… Skelly. My kids are happily in private school….. but would love to see Stanford move toward the U. Chicago model.

At this point about half the kids on my side of campus attend private school for middle an high school anyway…. just within 3 blocks of my street we have kids at Sacred Heart, Casti, Nueva, GMS, Menlo, Pinewood, Harker and Crystal….and I think Hausner. I'm just saying...It would be nice to have an additional private school for Stanford Faculty kids the way U. Chicago does - one that's completely affordable for faculty kids.




 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kathy
a resident of another community
on Dec 19, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Just, please don't "blame" the fire dept. for all these other issues.............


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kathy Hyde
a resident of another community
on Dec 19, 2013 at 7:05 pm

@ Stanford Resident.
Thanks for clarifying
These are difficult times........
I appreciate the time spent explaining the "real" issue...........
So, thanks for that....
Kathy


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Randy Traves
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 20, 2013 at 6:15 am

Why doesn't the school start a volunteer fire department. They could make use of students and nearby residents and keep the cost low. It also would be a great way to generate positive energy for the community and university.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 20, 2013 at 8:43 am

A volunteer department as a supplement or take on the entire job?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dave
a resident of Woodside
on Dec 20, 2013 at 11:38 am

I bet more cities are looking at this too. Pay another "company" to run the fire department. No more medical and pension costs. No more hiring process. No more maintaining or buying fire trucks and equipment. Just a yearly contract fee.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 20, 2013 at 12:46 pm

A good time for PAFD to re-evaluate their set up. Why not consider merging resources with Mtn Vw, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills? PAFD already shares the large ladder trucks with Mtn Vw.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Dec 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Why not consider merging resources with Mtn Vw, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills?"

I would add Menlo Park Fire Protection District which serves Atherton, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park and already has the longest contiguous border with Palo Alto of any other fire agency.

Orange County and Sac Metro are great examples of the one place in government where you can decrease costs and improve services - Fire agency consolidations.

The ideal consolidation would be every fire agency south of SF and north of San Jose.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Peter - I appreciate your POV. You have advocated merging departments over the years.

My only reason for the towns listed was that they are in the same county. Are there any (large population) fire departments/districts that have successfully merged operations across county lines?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of another community
on Dec 20, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Call the folks at Tesla. They should have a good one to recommend.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 20, 2013 at 1:41 pm

I don't own a Tesla. Quite the cheap shot don't you think? Especially since it's been proven that the problem is not with their cars.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 20, 2013 at 4:27 pm

"I bet more cities are looking at this too. Pay another "company" to run the fire department. No more medical and pension costs. No more hiring process. No more maintaining or buying fire trucks and equipment. Just a yearly contract fee."

That fee includes salaries, medical and pension costs, maintaining and buying fire trucks and equipment, plus a nice profit margin for the investors.






 +   Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of another community
on Dec 22, 2013 at 4:24 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by S. Coen
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 26, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Stanford is smart to see what other resources are out their to review. However Palo Alto by far provides the best firefighting personnal and are extremely highly trained to handle all of the different types of calls. Even though the majority are medical and false alarms they still get small fires and they still have hazardous material spills from different parts of the campus. And some of those past spills have had serious potential to be very bad. The hazardous materials team from the Palo Alto Fire Department is always highly trained to handle these " hush hush" spills before the public ever knows. Most fire departments call volumes are medical, but fires still do happen and if a reduction in personnal or equipment happens then the fire gets larger and does more damage before firefighters arrive on the scene. If Stanford were wise the only other Fire Agency worth looking at is Santa Clara County Fire Department. It's not just the school buildings but many of you who are residents will feel the effect of a downsized fire department when you call 911. Stanford has the school and it's many buildings, it's large residential homes, dorms, and wildland area's. The type of fire department necessary to handle this is a department that has all of this knowledge,specialized firefighting equipment and especially dealing with the volatile chemicals that Stanford does research on for the Government. That means it should either stay with Palo Alto or Santa Clara County Fire Department. These two are by far the best.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm

The agencies that might bid for fire service with Stanford University will be Santa Clara County Fire Dept, Menlo Fire, Woodside Fire, and Cal Fire (they contract for more than just wildland fire). I'm guessing Santa Clara County and Menlo Fire will be the big competitors against Palo Alto. The University is one of the only private colleges in the country that pay a significant amount of funds for fire protection services, and it is because of this that they're shopping for a better/competative service. If Palo Alto looses the contract, there might be a lot of cuts for the remaining stations and personnel which will greatly effect service levels.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Equestrienne
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 27, 2013 at 6:36 pm

A few years ago, when someone at the Stanford Equestrian Center suffered a sudden seizure, PAFD was Johnny-on-the-Spot!

Can the same be said of some other fire department Stanford chooses to contract, one that is farther away?


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