The Palo Alto Fire Department — in the midst of a dramatic, multi-year overhaul — is transforming into an operation that prizes medical skills as much as it does fire fighting, according to a new report from the department. The shift was prompted by a radical increase in medical calls, which now make up about 60 percent of total service calls, and by a recent report from two consulting firms, which issued 48 recommendations for improving department operations overall.
Recently, the city has hired six new paramedics and added a second full-time ambulance to its medical service. Previously, the department had one full-time ambulance and another one that served for 12 hours a day and was staffed by firefighters working overtime.
In addition, the city filled 17 firefighter vacancies in the department, and 14 of the new hires are also paramedics.
"Ideally, what we'd like to have is a paramedic on every engine, every day. We think that will provide the best service to the community," Public Safety Director Dennis Burns told the City Council's Policy and Services Committee Tuesday night, Oct. 23, at a discussion of the recent changes in the department.
While the addition of a full-time ambulance required the department to add six paramedics, some of these costs are offset by the drastic decrease in overtime and the increasing revenues from the ambulance operation. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, Emergency Medical Services brought in about $866,000 in revenues, compared to $719,000 in 2011-12, $565,000 in 2010-11 and $431,000 in 2009-10. Overtime expenditures in the first quarter of 2012-13 were $525,077, compared to $1.1 million in the first quarter of 2011-12.
The department's new focus on firefighters with medical skills is part of a broader movement toward efficiency and flexibility. The city succeeded last year in eliminating the long-standing "minimum staffing" provision in the contract of its largest firefighter union. The clause required the city to have at least 29 firefighters on duty at all times and restricted the city's ability to reduce the department's historically high overtime costs.
The Fire Department is also sharing more resources with the Police Department. According to the report, six administrative and management employees are now "shared across both operations providing administrative, budget/finance and technical support."
The recent changes in the department are projected to save $1.3 million in the current fiscal year, compared to last year. A huge part of this sum (about $1 million) is attributed to the recent closure of Station 7, which had serviced the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park.
The numbers generally pleased committee members, though Councilman Larry Klein said he expected to see savings of about $2 million.
The Fire Department is also ramping up its reliance on gathering data in order to inform decisions. It now uses a dashboard tool so staff can monitor every component of response time by shift, station and apparatus.
"Department management evaluates this information to determine the best way to deploy staffing resources and will use this to monitor any impact that flexible staffing and other operational changes may have on response times," the new report states.
The department's recent emphasis on data analysis and medical response is well-embodied by its new leader. Eric Nickel, whom City Manager James Keene recently tapped to be Palo Alto's fire chief, worked as a paramedic for 10 years and had overseen the paramedic operation for the Novato Fire Protection District, where he served as deputy chief. He will officially take the helm of the Fire Department next month.
Nickel made it clear to the committee Tuesday night that he is comfortable with data. He said he comes from a business background and was planning to become a banker before choosing to become a firefighter instead. His business skills, he said, served him well in managing operations in Novato.
"I'm all about using data to drive decisions and really going to the next level of using data to predict risk and predict the need for services," Nickel said.
Committee members praised the department's recent initiatives, with Greg Schmid offering a "big word of encouragement" for the direction in which things are going. Committee Chair Karen Holman agreed.
"I appreciate the savings. Keep it coming," Holman said. "As well as the efficiencies."