When Palo Alto officials asked for an independent study of Fire Department staffing, they had no idea the analysis would be performed by a veteran firefighter who belongs to the International Association of Fire Chiefs and who has never recommended staffing reductions for any of his previous projects.
These facts came out at the Tuesday night meeting of the City Council's Finance Committee, which was hearing an update on the highly anticipated "standards of coverage" study. The council had hoped to use the new study during its upcoming contract negotiations with the firefighters' union, but after hearing from the project consultant Tuesday, the committee's hopes largely dissolved into buyer's remorse.
Joe Parrot, the project consultant with the firm Emergency Services Consulting International, told the Finance Committee Tuesday that the new study would analyze the fire department's capability and the level of risk in the community and identify ways to achieve more efficient and effective service. Parrot, a deputy fire chief in Salem, Ore., said the study is scheduled to be completed and presented to the council in early June.
But the committee's eyes lit up after Councilman Larry Klein asked Parrot whether his company has ever recommended a staff reduction and Parrot said he couldn't recall a single case where that has happened. Parrot's statement startled the committee, which is grasping for ways to close an estimated $8.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011.
"The reality is that once we have a conversation with a community, in this case with the council, on what the department is trying to achieve in terms of incident mitigation and effective delivery of services, expectations about performance tend to go up rather than down," Parrot told the committee via telephone during Tuesday's meeting.
"In my experience with elected officials working all over the country, I have yet to have one suggest that they want a less effective fire department," he later added.
But while Parrot argued that his tendency to not recommend staff reductions is "client driven," committee members said they were shocked by his track record. Klein said it seemed "extraordinary that no study has ever come up with a reduction." Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa said he was "amazed, flabbergasted, but maybe not surprised" that the company has never recommended a staffing reduction. He also said he was "shocked" to see the city go "down this path."
"We're obviously looking for an objective, independent review of our -- specific here -- coverage standards and staffing standards," Espinosa said. "It's striking to me that we have selected a company that's never recommended staffing reductions if we're looking at staffing numbers."
The department's staffing levels have emerged as one of the city's hottest topics in the past month. The city's firefighters' union is trying to place a petition on the November ballot that would lock in the current staffing level in the department and require the city to hold an election any time it wants to reduce staff or close a fire station.
The union is also preparing to begin negotiations with the city over a new contract. The current agreement is scheduled to expire on June 30. On Monday night, the city council voted 7-2 to support a colleagues' memo calling the union proposal "bad government" and urging citizens not to sign it.
Given the tension between the city and the firefighters' union, the Finance Committee was distraught to learn that the consultant performing the study has never recommended a staff reduction. Klein also wondered aloud whether Parrot's affiliation with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a network of high-level fire officials, constitutes a conflict of interest or, at the very least, creates an institutional bias.
"I'm worried that you're not totally independent, that you have an institutional bias," Klein told Parrot. "You're either recommending efficiencies -– moving people around a bit –- or you recommend an increase.
"A reduction is not a possibility -- that's really troubling to me."
Parrot said the fire chiefs' organization provides his firm with additional expertise and experience. He also maintained that while his group has not recommended staffing reductions, it has recommended closing down stations and using existing resources more effectively.
Fire Chief Nick Marinaro said Parrot's firm was chosen by a five-member staff committee that included three high-level members of the Fire Department and financial analysts from the Utilities Department and from the Administrative Services Department. He said staff considered three consultants, then narrowed the field to two before choosing ESCI.
The city is spending $55,000 on the study.
According to Marinaro's report, the company has conducted more than 100 studies of this sort and has a long history of experience with fire departments in California and in the Bay Area. But Espinosa wondered aloud whether the consultant is independent enough to provide a credible study.
"Was it a concern at all that they not select -- given the delicacy of this issue -- someone who is currently serving in another fire department as a leader of that department?" Espinosa asked.
Committee Chair Greg Schmid noted that the informational letter from ESCI describing the scope of the project doesn't really address the subject of overtime -- another touchy topic at the Fire Department. Councilman Greg Scharff shared Espinosa's concerns and said he was "very, very troubled by a lot of information that was shared."
"I'm not sure we're getting the kind of study that we all thought we were," Scharff said.
Assistant City Manger Pamela Antil said staff will review the city's request for proposals for this study and consider whether the city "veered off in the wrong direction." Staff will return to the Finance Committee on May 6 with its report, Antil said.
The full City Council is scheduled to discuss the standards-of-coverage study on May 17.