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Debate on Measure R firefighters' proposal Oct. 6

Original post made on Oct 5, 2010

A pro-and-con debate of Palo Alto's Measure R -- which would mandate voter approval for any cutback in Fire Department staffing or station closure if approved in the Nov. 2 election -- will be held Wednesday (Oct. 6) 7 to 9 p.m. in the Palo Alto Art Center auditorium, Newell and Embarcadero Roads.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, October 5, 2010, 9:01 AM

Comments (23)

Posted by Smokey, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2010 at 11:24 am

Support your local Firefighters!

Posted by Matthew, a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Tying the hands of City Council from making certain changes might be a good idea some places... but not in a city like Palo Alto where we citizens are highly informed and involved. If they do run afoul, we'll reel them in. This has no purpose but to protect fire employees at the expense of all the other public services that make our town great.

Posted by thinker, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Fire Department needs our tax dollars to function. Police Department needs our tax dollars to function. School needs our tax dollar to function. Library needs our tax dollars to functionů City services need tax dollar to function.

Money does not grow on trees. We should wisely distribute limited tax dollars. Measure R is a job-protection bill which tax payers could not afford. When City has to adjust budget distribution among departments, we must give City Council the freedom to decide where we see fit.

We will vote No to R.

Posted by Mark, a resident of University South
on Oct 6, 2010 at 12:15 am

I think it's disconcerting that it's up to the City Council to decide what level of staffing and/or the number of open stations Palo Alto should have. None of these council members have the knowledge, training or experience to fully understand the impact of reduced stations or staffing has on public safety. This is not a simple accounting job where you look at cash flow. The Council itself is averse to having outside consultation on what staffing levels should be (see Web Link ) so recognizing their lack of expertise, perhaps it is best to have the citizens decide when a station should be closed or if firefighter staffing should be reduced.

Looking at other cities, the station closures have been horrific. Downtown Redwood City at their main station had a reduction in staffing ordered by the council so it doesn't have an on-duty fire apparatus that has water (it only has a fire truck that doesn't carry water). Citizens have a false sense of security because they see the fire truck in the window, but they don't realize it can't pour water on a fire! And then we look at San Jose when there were delayed response times just days after their City Council laid off firefighters and closed stations even with their band-aid "dynamic deployment" system. It is really scary that a select few are chosen to make decisions that can drastically determine who lives and who dies in an emergency.

Posted by so, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 6, 2010 at 8:00 am


Do you think the general electorate is better qualified to understand that staffing needs vs the other city functions requiring our dollars? If you do then why does this bill not make it a 2/3s vote to increase staffing levels as well? It would only be logical that the council is also incapable of increasing the staff level appropriately and that too should be handed to the electorate. No this is about protecting firefighters jobs pure and simple, not about emergency coverage. Thats just a fear tactic being used by the proponents of this measure.

Posted by Mark, a resident of University South
on Oct 6, 2010 at 10:51 am

So, I think you raise a good point. Personally, my preference is that there is at the very least a mandate to provide a dedicated community consultation meeting along with mailings to each resident about fire station reduced staffing/closures prior the City Council taking such action. This way, all members of the public have a chance to understand the public safety implications to them and have a chance to voice their concerns.

My worry is that Public Safety ends up on the cutting block because our elected officials only looks at the numbers - cash flow and such. I personally feel that a fire department is more like insurance - you don't buy fire sprinklers and then say to yourself, "Maybe if I removed 30 sprinkler heads it'll still provide the same protection at a lower cost". You buy fire sprinklers to be proactive about preparing for an emergency. Similarly, we have fire stations not necessarily for the day to day emergencies but for the "Big One" - situations that will strain the area's resources where everyone in the area is strained (like the San Bruno fire). I don't think the anti-Measure R folks would feel so strongly about fighting the measure if it was 1990, the year after Loma Preita. I get a sense that just because we haven't had a major disaster in a while, the "disaster preparedness apathy" moves to cutting public safety programs that are really the city's insurance. It's pretty unsettling to me because we live in earthquake and flood country and both will certainly strike in the future.

Posted by daniel, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 6, 2010 at 11:00 am

In order to even consider traffic calming measures, a safety measure, the city requires residents to submit a petition signed by a at least a sizable minority of the streets impacted. Once the city deems that the area deserves traffic calming measures like speed tables, for example, the residents are polled again and a majority vote is required to start the implementation. So we have a precedent in which the city delegates to residents the initiation,, vote and approval of safety measures. Why shouldn't they have the same apply in a matter of life and death like fire-station closure? This is a wonderful opportunity to take life&death decision away from politicians and give them to the people, which is the essence of a real democracy.

Posted by thinker, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 6, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Can anyone tell us where to find salary compensation for the FD?

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 6, 2010 at 12:20 pm

No On Measure R

The ballot initiative to lock in the number of Palo Alto firefighters for years to come makes no sense. The last fifty years have shown us that technology changes everything, replacing people with hardware and software--reducing cost and increasing quality. Sadly, the City of Palo Alto has no technology plan for the future Fire Department.

Ideas like sprinklers, retrofitted into all homes/businesses in Palo Alto, and online fire detectors, currently do not seem to be promoted by the Fire Department. Other Fire Departments report that fire sprinklers in commercial buildings are very effective at reducing the impact of fires once detected, often suppressing fires while waiting for first response units to arrive on the scene. Retrofitting sprinklers into homes would reduce fire damage too.

Medical device research will provide home hardware/software, using cell phones as communications devices, that will not only report accidents in the home, but also predict strokes/heart attacks--allowing residents hours, or days of advance warning to seek medical care--rather than have to depend on the last-minute activities of EMS personnel to obtain emergency treatment. Home medical hardware/software will ultimately reduce the number of EMS employees needed.

The problem of automatic pay increases for public safety employees, that will soon see firefights drawing salaries of over $200K, and lifetime pensions in the $4M-$6M range, clearly make the current service delivery model unsustainable. Mergers with other local cities, and regionalization of the firefighting responsibilities for the foothills, will ultimately create a totally new organizational structure, with responsibilities (and costs) being distributed across local cities, and county agencies, in a way that will require fewer firefighters on the payrolls of many Santa Clara/San Mateo County cities/agencies.

Having sophisticated, intelligent, management for the Fire Department is needed to advance, and implement, these ideas. The Fire Department managers should not have their hands tied when they make finally choices that will utilize new technologies in Palo Alto.

Thinking of the future, there can be no reason to support this ballot item.

Vote NO on Measure R!

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 6, 2010 at 12:28 pm

> Can anyone tell us where to find salary compensation for the FD?

Web Link

Here's a list of all the employees, and salaries, for the City of Palo Alto.

Posted by Mark, a resident of University South
on Oct 6, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Mr. Martin,

I too wish that technology could save your ills - and you're right - if the City Council (not the fire dept! see Web Link ) had the courage to mandate all new home construction were equipped with sprinklers and retrofit old buildings (like the old Walgreens building) it could make a big difference.

But public safety will always have "job security" because...

1. People will try to change a lightbulb while standing on a swiviling chair

2. People will bike at night on Palm Drive wearing black without any flashing lights

3. People will forget to change the batteries on their smoke detectors or disable them

4. People will try to solve their arguments with handguns or knives (Jade Palace stabbing...Koloto murder...)

5. People don't wear bike helmets

...and the list goes on

Accidents happen!

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 6, 2010 at 1:29 pm

> Accidents happen!

No disagreement .. the issue is how many firefights/EMS employees will we need in the future? Measure R gives the City little room to reconfigure itself. This is not how any organization should operate--including government agencies.

> if the City Council (not the fire dept)!

All change in the City is driven from the bottom up. Maybe the City Council could set some "priorities", but until the City Manager places someone "on their plate", the City Council is powerless to "mandate" anything. The ball is in the City Manager's court.

Underneath this issue is: NFPA 1710, which is an "industry standard" that has tried to micromanage the fire department staffing for the fire departments in urban settings:

Web Link

The cost of manning the rigs increases under NFPA 1710. Sprinklers, and online fire detectors (meaning that once a fire is detected there is an automatic 911 call providing time, date, physical location of the fire, etc.) would reduce the need for as many first response personnel required under NFPA 1710. (If memory serves, Palo Alto did not adopt NFPA 1710 when it was adopted several years ago. Not certain if it ever did, or if the current staffing is NFPA compliant with actually adopting the convention.)

Posted by danos, a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2010 at 1:40 pm


The "life and death like fire-station closure" argument doesn't make sense. I pointed out in a previous post that Santa Cruz City Fire - with a service population similar to PAFD's - has just 12 firefighters on duty. Even if we factor in the UC Santa Cruz fire dept staffing of 4 per day - to give equal weight to Stanford's presence in PA - that is a total of 16 firefighters protecting Santa Cruz and UCSC.

So why exactly does Palo Alto need 30 FFs per shift? It doesn't make sense.

Also your argument about Redwood City's Engine and Truck 9 at the downtown station is false. Both companies are staffed with 3 FFs each, although the Truck did lose 1 firefighter position.

Posted by Tim, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 6, 2010 at 2:40 pm

To danos,

Did you ever think that maybe Santa Cruz NEEDS more firefighters? Does Santa Cruz have a response time of 4 min or less, like Palo Alto does, anywhere in the city? Nope.
Most cities of our size are under staff for police and fire.

I look at fire stations and firefighters as insurance polices...don't ever want to use them, but glad they are there if my family or friends need them.

Posted by danos, a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I look at fire stations and firefighters as insurance polices too. The issue is that cities and people alike should only purchase as much insurance as they can realistically afford. Or need.

Posted by Mark, a resident of University South
on Oct 6, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Danos, my information regarding Redwood City Fire is actually correct. The loss of the Engine occurred late August. Just drop by the station to see for yourself or compare the dispatch records at ... very clear when E9 was on the job, and then its gone...

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 6, 2010 at 5:32 pm

> The issue is that cities and people alike should only
> purchase as much insurance as they can realistically afford

Let's perform a little "thought experiment" concerning this point.

Suppose that there are 20,000 houses in Palo Alto, and that the average fire insurance policy for PA homes is $1,000 per year. This means that the residents are paying about $20M for "private label" fire insurance a year.

Now, the PA Fire Department now costs the taxpayers (residents and businesses) about $26M a year. This we'll call "public label" fire insurance. Because the City does not use "true cost" accounting, it's almost impossible to know what the actual cost of providing fire services is, based on some sort of a "standardized" accounting scheme. (There are "issues", like how to account for all of the buried infrastructure necessary to provide the fire hydrants, rolling stock, fire stations, insurance, etc., but these "issues" could be easily ironed out.) In all likelihood, the "true cost" of providing "public label" fire insurance is $10M-$20M more than the operating budget, but at the moment--this is an unknown).

So, let's compute the cost of the current fire service delivery model for the next 20 years: $26M + a 4% yearly increase. This comes to about $775M (plus unknown capital expenses).

The cost of "public label" insurance for the next 20 years is: (20,000 x %1,000) + 3% yearly increase. This comes to about: $537M.

So, the total "public label" and "private label" insurance costs for the next 20 years is estimated at no less than: $1.3B (Billion).

Who knows what the capital costs will be over this period of time, but certainly it will be no less than $50M-$100M.

So .. $1.3B is a lot of money for "insurance". The Fire Fighters Union is trying to lock up as much of this as they can in salary and benefits--while the actual number of fires that will be fought during that period is likely to be a decreasing number.

Measure R is about how the residents want this $1.3B to be spent--on "insurance", on on a different delivery model that could easily reduce the total cost of "insurance by perhaps 50% while decreasing the likelihood of fire in our city.

Think about it folks!

Posted by danos, a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2010 at 5:50 pm


I stand corrected. It does indeed appear that Redwood City's E9 is no longer in service. My apologies :(

Posted by but, but..., a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 6, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Wayne -

The issue is not the cost of preparing to handle fires.

The preponderance of work that the fire department does is not fire related. It is acting as a very expensive first responder medical service.

That's why people say our management is out of sync; we are paying far more than we need to in order to get what we need. We might even get better medical response if we ensure our practices correspond to the current reality of our needs.

Posted by so, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 6, 2010 at 9:02 pm

just pay Cal Fire to man the stations, much cheaper

Posted by Jim, a resident of Professorville
on Oct 7, 2010 at 8:26 am

Cal fire is an often touted financial solution, but bear in mind you're pushing the cost of running a fire department up to the state. Not to mention the control. There will be some savings initially to the city, but what happens when the cal fire budget gets axed? What happens when a wild fire in another part of the state eats up millions of dollars of Cal fire's budget? What happens when non-local administrators decide your city does not need an additional fire apparatus because its most cost effective to place resources in another part of the state? Will Californians as a whole be willing to pay for your fire protection?

Web Link

Posted by Eric, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 8, 2010 at 6:45 pm

I think it's crazy to tie the city's hands on a personnel issue like this. Simply a job protection play in my view.

Posted by so, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 8, 2010 at 10:18 pm


CalFire is not free to the city, they contract out to them. The city gets the coverage it pays for. Our current coverage would be cheaper if provided for by CalFire.
We could also combine with Menlo Park and save money and get the same coverage.
The point is we could get the same coverage for less money.

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