Station 7, which includes one engine and three firefighters and which is actually located on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, will close later this month because of a decision by SLAC to seek fire-protection services from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. Palo Alto has been staffing the station for about 40 years as part of its contract with Stanford University, which the city's fire department also serves.
But SLAC, which is operated by the Department of Energy, has recently decided to discontinue the long-standing arrangement, Interim Fire Chief Dennis Burns told the Weekly. The chief driver, he said, was cost savings.
"It's not because of the quality of service, and it's not because of the relationship between agencies. It's just because there's been an economic downturn, and they're receiving less and less funds for their operations," Burns said.
SLAC's new agreement with the Menlo Park district means that the laboratory will no longer have a fire station on site. According to a recent report from Harold Schapelhouman, fire chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, the Department of Energy had performed a "basic-needs assessment" at the site and determined that on-site fire protection is no longer necessary and that "off-site services were more cost efficient and acceptable based upon the risk and actual call volume."
"Given the site location, its high level of life-and-fire-safety mitigation efforts, actual call activity and risk, it makes sense that surrounding fire agencies provide basic emergency response services to the site," Schapelhouman wrote in a December report.
The move also makes geographical sense. The station is based at the SLAC campus off Sand Hill. It was built in 1968 and is staffed by three firefighters, who rotate in three shifts throughout the day. The current arrangement also calls for the station to be immediately backfilled with other personnel whenever the engine leaves the SLAC campus.
The station's closure means the Palo Alto Fire Department will lose nine positions, though Burns said that because of existing vacancies the switch would not result in any layoffs in the department. He said the city is still re-examining its existing fee structure with Stanford to determine the exact fiscal impact of the station's shutdown.
Though the shutdown of Station 7 is driven by SLAC rather than by Palo Alto, the move is taking place at a time when the city is also taking a fresh look at its fire operations. Last year, an independent analysis commissioned by the City Council offered a long list of recommendations, including more cost-sharing arrangements with surrounding jurisdictions and a possible merger of Station 2 on Hanover Street and Station 5 on Arastradero Road.
While the Palo Alto Fire Department has been pursuing some recommendations, including merging of some administrative functions between the police and fire departments and consolidation of dispatch services with neighboring cities, it has no plans to close any stations (other than Station 7) in the near future, Burns said.
The 2011 report, from TriData Division and ICMA Center for Public Safety Excellence, indicated that Station 7 received 169 calls in 2009, far fewer than any other station except Station 8, a station in the foothills that operates only during the fire season. Burns noted that the shutdown of Station 7 is a separate effort from the department's broader look at making operations more efficient.
The TriData and ICMA report also states that it "does not appear that Station 7 is needed in the greater Palo Alto Fire Department deployment scheme."
"This station simply fulfills its contracted role as first responder to all Stanford SLAC emergencies," the report states. "Station 7 has incredibly low workload and is not in a good position to respond to anything other than as a complement unit (which it cannot really do because this station needs to be backfilled within 10 minutes)."