Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 10, 2010

Fire Dept. blasted for poor planning, training

Consultants identify flaws, call for a merger of police, fire administrations

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's Fire Department suffers from years of shoddy planning, insufficient training, a "leadership malaise" and a rigid staffing system that makes it nearly impossible for the department to deploy firefighters efficiently, according to consultants who have spent the past several months analyzing its operations.

The scathing findings emerged during Monday night's study session on the department's staffing levels a subject of November's Measure R. The city's two consulting firms, TriData and ICMA Consulting Services, presented their preliminary findings to the City Council Monday night. They are scheduled to release a final report in February.

The final report is expected to offer a range of bold recommendations, including merging the administration of the city's police and fire departments, devoting more resources to public education and prevention activities and possibly merging operations of Station 2 on Page Mill Road and Station 5 on Arastradero Road.

Staffing levels in the department have recently emerged as the most contentious topic in the ongoing contract negotiations between the city and its largest firefighters union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319.

The two sides have persistently clashed over staffing, overtime and a budget that swelled as other city departments experienced layoffs and service reductions.

Last month, city voters overwhelmingly rejected the union-supported ballot measure that would have frozen department staffing levels and forced the city to hold an election before it could close a fire station or cut staff. The union pointed to the ongoing staffing study as evidence that the council is planning to cut staffing to dangerous levels.

But the city's consultants claimed Monday that the current staffing levels are by and large arbitrary and that the present system hampers efficiency. The city's contract with the union includes a "minimum staffing" provision that requires the department to always have at least 29 firefighters on duty. This provision keeps the city from allocating its staffing efficiently, said Tom Wieczorek, the project manager from ICMA.

Wieczorek said he has never before encountered an organization that has "the same workload at 2 a.m. in the morning and at 2 p.m. in the afternoon.

"By setting minimum staffing, you're never able to adjust your staffing to meet the demand," he said. "That becomes a real challenge going forward.

"You don't have the flexibility to adjust and move those people around at those different times."

The consultants concluded that the city's firefighters are highly professional and perform an "outstanding job" when it comes to everyday operations. But they also found that the department's fire-prevention, public education and training efforts have been relatively poor and its planning sorely lacking. They attributed the shortcomings largely to a recent shrinking of the department's administration, which forced department leaders to focus on day-to-day operations rather than the future.

"There have been a lot of positions eliminated so that planning in the Fire Department is almost nonexistent," said Stephen Brezler, a consultant with TriData. "Senior staff is too busy trying to put out fires and just kind of reacting to the daily issues not planning."

Brezler said the department could improve its operations and data management by merging its administrative functions with the Police Department, which he said does a much better job collecting and analyzing data. The fact that Police Chief Dennis Burns also serves as an interim fire chief creates an opportunity for the city to consolidate the two departments' human resources, budget, information technology and planning operations areas where the consultant said the department is "particularly weak."

"We think there is an opportunity to merge the organizations into a hybrid public safety organization," Brezler said.

Tony Spitaleri, president of the firefighters union, had blasted the ongoing study before the November election as a pretext by the city to cut staff. Despite his earlier reservations, Spitaleri told the Weekly after the consultants' presentation that the report largely confirms what the firefighters have been saying all along that years of cuts in the department's administration have severely harmed operations.

Spitaleri was one of more than a dozen union members who attended the Monday hearing. The group assembled for a brief meeting with Burns immediately after the consultants' presentation.

"The report is a black eye for the city; it's not for the Fire Department," Spitaleri told the Weekly after the meeting. "They gutted everything we had at the top."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Wondering, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 7, 2010 at 7:38 am

Is it not time that some curious reporter set out to explore Mr. Tony Spitaleri's past and current, i.e. his past in Sunnyvale and his current Union Rep. position here in Palo Alto.
Just what did Sunnyvale think of him as a Fire Chief and how much did he get paid and does he have retirement benefits? How much are the Palo Alto firefighters paying him as Union Rep?
To me, he seems more of a promotor for himself than a true representative of the Union of wonderful Firefighters that we are blessed to have in PA.


Posted by PAPD-Critic, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2010 at 8:09 am

To: Posted by Wondering, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, 5 minutes ago

I attended last nights meeting and was one of two presenter during oral communications. Despite the many challenges including "Malaise" (Dennis Burns) leadership the PAFD has done an outstanding job.

I think anyone would be hard pressed to find one single complaint on the delivery of services unlike the police with a repeated history of scandals (DUI's)

Business as usual at the Palo Alto Online, this article fails to address the the real issues of leadership at the TOP and a missed opportunity.

As for Mr. Spitaleri, he's a lobbyist it's that simple.


Posted by Observer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2010 at 8:18 am

It's outrageous that the fire department has to have the same number of firefighters on duty at all times. Is that the result of the union? Unions are a good idea, but unfortunately, they often result in this sort of absurdity. I signed the petition to bring the issue of department employee numbers to a vote here in town because I thought it would give us a chance to find out the truth about it. It did and I voted against it. With this study, I believe we now know that there has been huge incompetence at some level. I'd like to know who is responsible for these problems and for them to be fired. Firefighting is important and those in charge of it have to be intelligent and ethical.


Posted by Time-For-A-Regional-Fire-Department, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2010 at 9:45 am

The Fire Department does not issue a yearly performance report, or a detailed budget, for public review. The City Auditor has never reviewed the Fire Department, so there are no base lines of performance (other than the Service Report) in order to make meaningful judgement of this report, or the Fire Department.

Claims that Department provides excellent service, that come from members of the Department, most certainly are self-serving. Any organization can perform well for short periods of time, but without appropriate planning for the future, at some point that organization will stop performing as well as it could. In the private sector, this means "going out of business". In the public sector, it means any number of "crises" which are often corrected behind closed doors.

Some of the consultant's findings, such as: "planning in the department is mostly non-existent because of the elimination of command and support staff positions" suggest, in the long term, a consolidation of fire departments among our neighboring cities, so that this sort of activity can be done by a single entity--rather than differently, and who knows how many people.

Given the importance of public safety, this is another black eye for the current, and past, City Managers and Councils.



Posted by Charley, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2010 at 9:58 am

So, the consultant's recommendations include combining two fire station Nos. 2 and 5, of course this makes a lot of sense but the City has already tried this and the residents of College Terrace objected.

Closing the fire station on Hanover will bring College Terrace out en-mass to defend it; despite the fact that the Stanford fire station is right there on their other side. College Terrace will continue to be better covered than many other areas of Palo Alto.

Closing the fire station on Hanover makes a lot of sense, but I doubt Council has the will to do it.


Posted by homegirl, a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2010 at 9:58 am

Oh, Boys and Girls of the Fire Department: Were you not warned that this would come back hard upon you?
Yes, you were. If not by your own consciences, then by the wrath of the Citizenry and Council. Warnings not heeded often bring grief not needed.

And whoever had the nerve to criticize CHIEF BURNS is very misinformed and if you did your homework, you'd know that this mess fell into his lap very recently. So, unless you know what you are talking about, don't talk.


Posted by David, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2010 at 10:43 am

Leadership and upper management training in the department my have suffered due to the huge exodus of the experienced personnel. They are leaving in droves due to the uncertainty of their department's structure along with their retirement. Who is to blame them? This retiring group is leaving with lots of knowledge and training, and now the remaining command staff is likely doing at least double administrative and management duties. The department has brought back retired assistant chiefs to fill in, but that is only a temporary/Band-Aid solution. The remaining command staff may be eager to take new responsibility, but have not been allowed due to the politics of this study. The politics of union negotiations have likely fed into the decision process too (retribution?). With this indecision on the department's future (extensive reorg or farm out to county fire), the city manager down to Chief Burns have likely kept the reigns short and have hampered training opportunities to the surviving command staff. This lack of training to gain experience will hamper the growth of the department and may start the collapse of the Palo Alto fire empire. Train opportunities across the entire city organization have been limited with the budget shortfalls. This study on one department shows short sighted actions to save a few bucks can affect the whole city and services to our tax payers in a huge way for years to come.


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2010 at 10:53 am

"Wondering"

Just an FYI, Tony Spitaleri was never "what did Sunnyvale think of him as Chief" Chief or Public Safety Officer in Sunnyvale.
He was elected to the City Council.


Posted by In the Know, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2010 at 11:19 am

These findings are true of almost ALL departments in Palo Alto - with most at the bottom rungs doing their jobs well, but with NO LEADERSHIP at the TOP, NO COMMUNICATION and NO PASSION for their jobs among higher ups. If they DO have those abilities, they are punished for it, and ostracized.

It has little to do with the exodus of employees leaving & taking
"knowledge" with them. That's gone on for years, and in ALL communities.

A newer trend is that there's little knowledge for our important people to know. If there WERE any, it should have been shared prior to their leaving - at least, if there were LEADERS to make that happen.

Average city employees get little support from the top. So it's a recipe for disaster.

There's no leadership on City Council. In Palo Alto, the blind is leading the blind, for the benefit of trusting masses that pay the bill for it.

As long as residents are happy with the system as it is, it will continue. No leadership - from the City Manager's office, on down.

Palo Alto's high school civics classes could take over top jobs in Palo Alto, from City Manager on down. The city would likely be better run - at least the kids would care, and have a passion for making the community a better place. It would give them a purpose.

Pay the top managers to leave.


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2010 at 12:03 pm

First off, Minimum Staffing is listed as 29 plus 1 Battalion Chief. The actual "minimum staffing" (and dictated and required by the City Council is 31 plus the Battalion Chief.
The two other employees are mandated by the Council and paid with overtime, that is a large reason the overtime budget is higher! This Council mandate was the City Councils choice and directive, not the firefighters. One Council member last night noted that fact.
Why did the counsultant not ask why the City Council why they staff above minimum staffing 365 days a year?
The Consultant also noted that the Fire Dept has reduced staff positions, which in turn hurts effectivness, training, record keeping, etc. The Consultant and a member of the public also brought up the fact the FD is using ambulances which are over 10 years old and in dire need of replacement. Again, the City Managers and City Councils decision to risk peoples lives and reliability by using old ambulances. The private sector does not use old ambulances.
It is very clear after watching the telecast last night that several of the Council Members have no understanding of emergency services, a couple of them basicly wanted the "Consultants" to do the Councils job for them it seemed. One Council member actualy wanted to know if it was possible to "short circuit" the process to speed up changing things.


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I find it interesting that the Consultants noted items related to reductions in staff has had a negative impact on the FD. Certain Council members have spoken out saying "every other city dept has taken cuts or reductions except the FD"??
The consultants noted there have been cuts and reductions. And it's had a negative impact.
The Consultants noted back logged inspections and lack of prevention education to the public, but the number of inspectors and the prevention division has seen positions eliminated and reductions made? what is the mystery here? the Council and City Manager decided to make those cuts in the first place! Now what??? is any rational person unable to see that of course there would be negative impacts?
Some members of the Council were also wise to question what the Consultants were not getting data older than five years, many cuts in the FD were done more than five years ago so these facts obviously would not come out in the data for a reason! the City Managers office does not want the Council or the Consultants to have all of the facts!


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2010 at 12:24 pm

"Time-For-A-Regional-Fire-Department"

You staement "claims that department provide excellent service, that come from the members of that department, most certainly are self srving"

The City of Palo Alto has polled the community of Palo Alto several times and ASKED THE PEOPLE OF PALO ALTO TO RATE THE SERVICES PROVIDED TO THEM BY THE CITY FOR QUALITY AND EFFECTIVNESS. The RESIDENTS said the FIRE DEPT provides excellent services!!!!
This was not the Firefighters "claiming" anything.
The City actualy polled the end user of the services.


Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 7, 2010 at 12:55 pm

The citizens of PA should urge our elected leaders to make major changes to the way fire related safety services are provided. It is clear that having 30+ ff's sleeping away every night is a ridiculous waste of manpower. It is also clear that paying ff's $150k per year when the national average salary for an ff is $50k is a waste of taxpayer resources. I would start with the following steps:
1.) Eliminate binding arbitration
2.) Research using outsourcing or private fire fighting services for PA and get eliminate the PAFD
3.) Reduce PA ff salaries across the board immediately by 30% and ultimately to the national average, with an uplift for regional cola.
4.) Require PA ff's to work when on the payroll. So all of those inspections and safety planning that is not getting done should be completed by ff's who currently spend their paid time sleeping and shopping


Posted by What contract?, a resident of Southgate
on Dec 7, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Here's my contract proposal:
NO CONTRACT.
If you want to be on the PAFD, fine. And, you get to keep you Union dues. If you're not happy, quit. Why do we need an endless stream of consultants to determine how many fire fighters we need? In case the Union disagrees? Are we to believe the Union is unbiased and would recommend cutting staff if it was best for the city?


Posted by Time-For-A-Regional-Fire-Department, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2010 at 1:17 pm

> The City actualy polled the end user of the services.

Actually, the City did not poll anyone--it contracted the survey out to a this organization, if memory serves:

Web Link

Like most surveys, only a small subset of the population was contacted, and then statistical extrapolation used to manufacture a result.

This particular organization only charges about $7,500 for this survey, meaning that not much time is spent on the surveying effort.

When one looks at the survey (which is usually attached to the Auditor's Service Report), the first thing one notices is that the questions have nothing to do with the city being surveyed. The questions are very broad "stroked", with no attempts to determine if the person being surveyed has the slightest idea about actual government service being investigated by the survey.

For instance, these questions don't seem to determine:

1) Have you had a fire in your dwelling, and received services from the Palo Alto Fire Department?
2) Have you had a medical emergency, and received services from the Palo Alto Fire Department?
3) Have you received medical emergency services from any other Fire Department/Ambulance service in the United States during the last calendar year?

These kinds of questions are called "centering", or "anchoring" questions. They would be used in evaluating the results of the survey respondents as to whether the respondents have first hand knowledge, or are simply responding to the questions with "hear say".

If memory serves, there were about 600 people queried. That is about 1% of the resident population. With only 40 structure fires last year, it's very unlikely if anyone in this small subset would have actually sustained a fire in his/her home. So, the answers about Fire Suppression services would most clearly be "hear say". Some percentage of the survey respondents would likely have been transported to a medical facility, so their input to the survey would be "first hand". Unfortunately, this survey does not set the stage for determining the validity of the responses.

Sadly, this survey is basically a waste of taxpayer's money. It proves nothing, other than the City government will do anything to make itself look good.


Posted by Excellent Palo Alto Management, a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2010 at 2:17 pm

This is a shocker. Listenening for years to Palo Alto city managers and politicians, I thought that Palo Alto had the very finest city management anywhere! You don't suppose that their were full of ** about this do you? No way.


Posted by FIREMAN, a resident of another community
on Dec 8, 2010 at 8:45 am

REALLY, SAME STAFFING AT 2PM AS AT 2AM...FIRES NEVER OCCUR IN THE EARLY MORNING? USE YOU HEAD PEOPLE..A FIRE DEPT IS STAFFED 24/7..ITS CHEAPER TO PAY ONE FIREMAN TO WORK A 24 HOUR SHIFT THAN 3 TO WORK 8 HOUR SHIFTS TO COVER THE 24 HOURS...OR SHOULD WE JUST SAY IF YOU CAN'T HAVE YOUR EMERGENCY BETWEEN 9AM AND 5PM..YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN...

JUST FOR EXAMPLE BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND 6 AM TODAY..MY AREA HAD NEARLY 20 911 CALLS FOR SERVICE...WE DIDN'T SLEEP...WE WORKED...


Posted by SoCalCFO, a resident of another community
on Dec 8, 2010 at 11:17 am

Without reading the entire ICMA report... it sounds like one done for a nearby city here in SoCal. The consultant has no real understanding of fire protection services. While I am objectionable to some of the out of control pay and benefits across government (including fire and LE) as a whole... I must take exception to the assumptions they are making about emergency services herein. While frequency of calls may decrease at night time, severity often goes up. Fires are just as big at night, and usually bigger in commercial occupancies since there is no one around to see them in their initial stages before it blows out the widows. They are also likely to be more deadly to sleeping, unaware residents. Emergency operations, whether fires, hazmats, traffic accidents, etc. are more hazardous at night due to darkness. Postulating that less firefighters are needed at night is one of the more ridiculous statements I've heard. It is a shame that your Council doesn't take the time to educate themselves on fire protection services. While it is seldom that you will find me agreeing with union employees on most issues... the "fireman" posting above correctly states what my community found. 24 hour shifts are more economical. It costs way more to reduce shifts and hire the additional employees it takes to cover all stations unless you want to reduce staffing to unsafe levels. That is something that my community has chosen NOT to do. Good luck to yours.


Posted by Time-For-A-Regional-Fire-Department, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2010 at 12:10 pm

> Postulating that less firefighters are needed at night is one
> of the more ridiculous statement

Hmm .. if someone took the activity reports for a couple years' fire fighting calls, and analyzed them for say, time-of-day, one would find that 1) more fires occur during daylight hours, or 2) more fires occur during night time hours. Based on this simple analysis, for this fire department (or community), it would be possible to factually postulate that more fires occur during the daytime, if that turned out to be the case. Sadly, we don't seem to see that sort of information made available in Palo Alto, on a yearly basis, published by the Fire Department.

> They are also likely to be more deadly to sleeping,
> unaware resident

Since you claim to be from out-of-town, you might not be aware that only three people have been killed in fires in Palo Alto in the last five years (according the the annual Auditor's report).

It's very likely that recommendations for one town's fire department might not be necessarily beneficial to another town's situation.


Posted by PA Resident, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2010 at 12:27 pm

As I read the press reports of the consultant's reports; I came to the conclusion these consultants have been reading too many of the Fire fighter's blogs in Town Square. They are always complaining about their senior management staff.

As to the idea of keeping Dennis Burns in charge of both the Police and Fire Departments; the poor guy is working many 15 hour days just to keep up with things. Senior police officers are also carrying some of the load for him, so Burns can give more time to the fire department.

Palo Alto has one of the best Police Chiefs we've had in years, please don't overburden him; we need him as our Police Chief for many more years.


Posted by Just the Facts, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Time-For-A-Regional,

You can save money by going to a regional fire department. You will lose local medical transport and service will then come from the County, which is fine until you or a loved one needs the service, and you wait an extra five minutes or more for an ambulance.

You will also lose the Stanford Contract, which means you will pay almost exactly the same as what you pay now, even though the service level will be dramatically reduced.

On the other hand, rather than eliminating a valuable service, Palo Alto could move much of the overhead (Dispatch, IT, Human Resources, Budget, etc.) for PD into the Fire Department, which would get Stanford to pay for a third of the cost.

This City has completely failed to grasp the workings of the Stanford Contract for decades, and as a result has hollowed out Public Safety needlessly.


Posted by Time-For-A-Regional-Fire-Department, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2010 at 1:16 pm

> You can save money by going to a regional fire department.

Probably.

> You will lose local medical transport and service will then come
> from the County,

"Regional" does not necessarily mean "county". While it is possible, it might make more sense to look at a "region" as 4-6 contiguous cities (which might cross county lines in this case--like Menlo Park and EPA being possible candidates for such a merged fire department).


> which is fine until you or a loved one needs the service,
> and you wait an extra five minutes or more for an ambulance.

Conjecture at this point. Rethinking the current approach would provide an opportunity to look at alternatives (increasing the number of ambulances due to increased funding available from downsizing elsewhere, considering the impact of personal medical electronics that help to predict emergency situations, more/less outsourcing). There doesn't seem to be much thinking about how to provide ambulance services on a regional basis, at this point.

> You will also lose the Stanford Contract, which means you will
> pay almost exactly the same as what you pay now, even though
> the service level will be dramatically reduced.

The Stanford Contract allegedly brings in about $7M a year. While presumably this amount is acceptable to Stanford, as it increases in the future (at roughly 3% a year), will Stanford always be willing to pay this money? (Keep in mind that Stanford will pay around $350M for this service over the next 30 years. While Stanford has deep pockets, it stands to reason that at some point, it may decide to do something different--particularly if it is able to "design out fires" on the Stanford campus.

> This City has completely failed to grasp the workings of the
> Stanford Contract for decades, and as a result has hollowed out
> Public Safety needlessly.

Perhaps you could enlighten us?


The current Fire Department Budget is about $27M/year and seems to have no limit. This comes to maybe $1B (depending on inflation) over the next 30 years. Clearly, this is a lot of money--and it's way past time to begin to think about other ways to spend this money than on feeding the fire department.

With a $550M infrastructure backlog, the City needs to be looking at every dollar that is available to it in the coming years, and look for other organizational models to provide services, and reduce costs.


Posted by Joe, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 8, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Can somebody explain, in simple terms, why rolling the PAFD in with other area departments would be a good thing? San Carlos and Belmont are planning on breaking up their combined departments: (San Carlos and Belmont prepare for split of fire department after 31-year partnership - Web Link) and Menlo Park has it's own labor and pay issues: (Menlo Park firefighters' union says it will reject 'last, best and final offer' - Web Link).


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Dec 8, 2010 at 9:10 pm

"Taxpayer"

Your starting to sound a lot like a person who couldnt get hired as a firefighter with all your talk about slashing their salaries down to the national average, outsourcing, etc.
Why stop at the FFs? why not slash all the salaries in the city to the national average? outsource everyones position?
How about if your employer reduced your salary down to the national average for that position? would that be OK with you?
Whats your reasoning? do you ever wonder why nobody seems to be practicing your salary scale ideas in the Bay Area? Don't you think that if it worked we would see more of it? Even Wallmart pays employees in the Bay Area more than the average for the rest of the Country, I wonder why?
The think Hoover think tank might like to hear your supporting data.


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Dec 8, 2010 at 9:22 pm

The consultants concluded that the city's firefighters are highly professional and perform an "outstanding job" when it comes to everyday operations. But they also found that the department's fire-prevention, public education and training efforts have been relatively poor and its planning sorely lacking. They attributed the shortcomings largely to recent staffing reductions in the department administration -- reductions that forced department leaders to focus on day-to-day operations rather than the future.

"There have been a lot of positions eliminated so that planning in the Fire Department is almost nonexistent," said Stephen Brezler, a consultant with TriData. "Senior staff is too busy trying to put out fires and just kind of reacting to the daily issues -- not planning."

Jake, I find it interesting that just a few short months ago the Fire Dept and FFs were getting blasted by the city council, local media and several posters on this board for "not taking cuts like the rest of the city workers" when the consultants correctly noted that prior cuts and reductions are a large part of why things are not being accomplished in the FD. So contrary to what all off the detractors were saying (past council woman Wheeler) there have been cuts in the fire dept. Did the consultants make that up??? anyone?


Posted by Tim, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2010 at 9:53 pm

The report is a black eye for the city; it's not for the Fire Department," Spitaleri told the Weekly after the meeting. "They gutted everything we had at the top."
Watched it on tv and would have to agree with the above statement.
Never once did the report say to cut the number of Firefighters, in fact it said to hire more to reduce the overtime.
It did say that some stations were too close together and could be relocated and that fire units could also be moved around for better response times.


Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 9, 2010 at 8:26 am

Jake,

You sound like a person who knows he is in a profession that is overpaid by a factor of 200%. I just wish that you had learned some lessons from the failed union featherbedding initiative (Prop R).

I don't like to overpay for anything. Palo Alto could have the same level of fire safety service at half the current cost. The citizens of PA would not be so focused on "fixing" the fire dept if the union hadn't been so arrogant and greedy. You may not have noticed (or cared) but our society has a deficit spending problem. The way you fix that is to cut the services to the level you cn afford and make sure it is being provided in a cost effective way. There are many areas of government that are too expensive. Many of the cost excesses are due to unions. I am currently most focused on the fire union because of the greedy Prop R attempt.

I'll repeat and add to where I hope the city focuses:
1.) repeal binding arbitration immediately
2.) reduce the union ff salaries by 30% immediately and down to the national average (with a Bay area cola) in the near term
3.) increase retirement age of ff's to 62
4.) limit retirement salaries to 50% of salary
5.) analyze outsourcing and private fire fighting service


Posted by Excellent Palo Alto Management, a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2010 at 8:27 am

"Senior staff is too busy trying to put out fires and just kind of reacting to the daily issues -- not planning."

The above statement says it all about the organizational culture and leadership within the City of Palo Alto organization. This culture, in place for many years and continuing under the current City Manager, must change for the City of Palo Alto to become an effective organization. The Mayor and Council must show leaderhip to effect real change in the bureaucracy.


Posted by Time-For-A-Regional-Fire-Department, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2010 at 9:47 am

> "Senior staff is too busy trying to put out fires and just
> kind of reacting to the daily issues -- not planning."

Agree with the first poster, and want to comment a little more on the point. The PA Fire Department does not put out fires--only about 2% of the total calls for service are for actual fire suppression activities. Virtually all of the activity of the department (in terms of calls) is for EMS (Ambulance service). The rest of the activity is "back end" (meaning Hazmat), and "training".

So, what are the "fires" that are being put out by "senior management"? In any organization where "senior management" is involved in resolving day-to-day problems, it's only because the lowest level of management is incompetent, or there are seemingly intractable political forces at work that can only be "drive" to problem solutions by "the big boss".

This department has what seems to be an inordinately high number of captains, battalion chiefs, and fire marshals. What do all of these people do? And still not be available for "planning"?

There is clearly a dearth of good management at City Hall. The previous two fire chiefs were extremely long-termed employees, with absolutely no experience in the private sector, nor other fire departments. Promoting people up from the ranks to fire chief is one of the nagging problems that needs to be dealt with in the coming years, here in Palo Alto. Well run organizations tend to rotate their top management fairly frequently. Having directors and public safety chiefs with 30+ years experience in the same department serves no one very much.

The city's residents anxiously await the release of the reports that are being developed about the fire department.


Posted by Time-For-A-Regional-Fire-Department, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2010 at 10:24 am

> It needs to happen but you need new players

Agreed. The problem with all human organizations is always the same: "Management". In the private sector, failure of management means (typically) a replacement of the failing management, or the failure of the company. In either case, the bad management is "replaced". In the US military, poor management results in failure to complete the military's mission, dead GIs, and maybe even the loss of sovereignty of one, or more, of the belligerents. So, management "oversight" can be almost brutal. In the US Navy, ship/boat captains are frequently replaced if their vessels are involved in a collision with another vessel, or their vessel fails and important inspection.

When we look at municipal government, we don't find the same kind of management "oversight" of department heads that would go on in the military for people with the same functional authority. So, governments bumble along, with no particular corrective mechanism in place. One poster suggested that the Mayor provide leadership here. Sadly, in Palo Alto, the Charter prohibits the City Council (with its unelected mayor having no real power) from being involved in the running of the day-to-day affairs of the City government. A mayor could take a "political" role, by "forcing" the City Manager to bring in more "consultants" to document the problems of a given organization. Then perhaps, with the problems on the table, when the next budget cycle comes along, the Council might have some leverage. But that's pretty much all that can be done legally until the Charter is changed.

The idea behind a Regional Fire Department is that there would be fewer "brass", and a single, visible, organization. It's possible that such an organization might need an elected chief, and an elected oversight commission, in order to insure that the problems that needed to be solved by a reorganization, are actually being solved in a "regional" organization.

At a minimum, a new charter for new fire department would necessarily require more transparency into the department.


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2010 at 1:26 pm

"taxpayer"

Anyone who can read basic accounting books can look at the City of Palo Altos budget and see for themselves that the PAFD cost the far less than other fire depts for anything close to the same level of protection.
Right off the start Stanford pays a 1/3 of the fire dept budget, THAT IS MONEY THAT PALO ALTO DOES NOT SPEND. Then subtract over two million for what insurance companies pay the CPA for paramedic transport (the PAFD rate is lower than what the private sector charges) then also subtract fee's collected for things like Haz-Mat permits.
I hate to break it to you but that is almost half the PAFD budget! ie 50% less.
The consultants wrote themselves that CUTS and REDUCTIONS have impacted the PAFD in a negative way.
Is the fact the PAFD actual cost still not cheap enough for you?
You keep saying "I don't like to overpay for anything"? You are paying less for a fire dept than most other residents of any city.
Your actual taxpayer cost is less, the actual cost to the city is less.
If you live in Palo Alto do you feel you underpaid for housing? Palo Alto is far above the National average when it comes to housing cost and average household income. I'd really like to see how you were able to secure housing for less than the amount of money others paid.

All the CPA budget info in available online along with most every other City in the area, look it up for yourself and you will clearly see the PAFD is costing "taxpayers" less than other depts in the area and in the country.


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2010 at 1:36 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Cory, a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Fire companys work a 24 hour shift with constant staffing. You never know when, where or what you are going to get. You can't predict when you will need alot of manpower or multiple units to respond to multiple emergencies. Some rural communities down staff at certain times, but most large cities never do. I question these consulting firms with regard to their knowledge and experience.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Community Center
on Dec 9, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Tim,

It is time you got real about fire employees costs to the taxpayers. No problem if they want to quit early. Just don't expect the citizens to pay for their early retirement. It is ridiculous that the rest of us are going to work till 62 and beyond but fire employees are going to retire in their 50's and the rest of us are going to pay for it. If they don't want to do fire work, they can pull weeds, or clean bathrooms. Whatever they need to do until they are 62 and old enough to start collecting retirement benefits. It may be a paiful adjustment for them to actually work a full schedule, but they'll have to get used to it. If they want to sit around and do nothing till they are 62 (and with the fat salaries they are collecting that is probably a viable option), that will be their choice.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Dec 10, 2010 at 7:11 am

"Tim"

You write "it may be a painful adjustment for them to actualy work a full schedule"??
How many hours do you spend at work each week? how many Easters, Christmas's,4th of July's have you worked?
Depending on where they work the vast majority of firefighters work 56-72 hour work weeks. Last time I checked full time employment was considered anything over 40 hours a week.
Firefighters also work on holidays when the average worker is at home or on vacation with their families. And before you say they are at the fire hall sleeping most of the time, you should consider if that is your personal experience or are you just repeating what you have heard somebody else write here or what you think they do.
Anything else is just a misinformed guess at best.


Posted by Bill Bucy, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 16, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

I've had first-hand experience with the quality of Palo Alto fire fighters and they deserve much praise and respect. But after their ill-considered attempt to lock in staffing through the ballot and the recent consultant's report I wonder if the department as an institution hasn't lost touch with the community and its needs.

The department exists to serve the residents Palo Alto and in that role it earns their respect and support. But nothing good can come from the department viewing itself as a separate entity with unique - and more important - needs.


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