Palo Alto officials have scrapped a much anticipated study into staffing levels at the Fire Department after learning that the consultant in charge of the study is unlikely to give them the type of information they're looking for, Assistant City Manager Pamela Antil said Wednesday.
The city had hired the firm Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) in February to perform a "standards of coverage" study and to offer recommendations on staffing levels in the department. The study was scheduled to be completed in June and to help inform city officials in their negotiations with the Palo Alto Firefighters, Local 1319, whose contract expires on June 30.
But the city terminated the contract Friday, three days after a City Council committee heard a preliminary report on the study and learned that the consultant performing the study is affiliated with the International Association of Fire Chiefs -- a support network for fire chiefs and emergency -response leaders -- and has never recommended a staffing reduction.
Antil said that after hearing the overview last week, staff decided that the ESCI report wouldn't give the council the type of in-depth analysis of staffing levels and overtime that the city was hoping to see. She said staff is now proposing a new study that would go beyond the "standards of coverage" analysis and focus on staffing levels and overtime expenditures.
"What we concluded as the consultant's work unfolded was that the range and depth of the analysis won't give us the information we need," Antil said. "We're looking for a study that will tell us if fire services and staffing levels are effectively matched to the needs of the community.
"The overview they gave at the Finance Committee did not give us any preliminary analysis."
The committee learned at its April 20 meeting that Joe Parrott, the consultant working on the $55,000 study, serves as a deputy fire chief in Salem, Ore., and has never recommended a staffing reduction. Councilman Larry Klein said he was concerned about the consultant's "institutional bias," while Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa said he was "amazed" and "flabbergasted" by the city's decision to hire a consultant who has never recommended reducing staff.
But Tony Spitaleri, president of the firefighters' union, accused the city of killing the study because it seemed unlikely to give the council the conclusion it was seeking. Spitaleri said the city's decision to scrap the study only confirms the union's argument that the public needs to have a greater say on its public safety operations.
Spitaleri also disputed the city's assertion that the consultant's status as a professional firefighter makes him biased in any way.
"They're saying the study might be biased," Spitaleri said. "But who do they want to perform the study, a shipbuilder?"
The union is circulating a petition that would require Palo Alto voters to approve any decision to reduce Fire Department staff or close a fire station. The petition needs to garner 5,442 signatures by mid-June to qualify for the November ballot.
"They want someone to come in and say, 'You have too many firefighters,' so that they can take it into negotiations and hold it over our heads and tell us they have to reduce firefighters," Spitaleri told the Weekly. "This is a good example for why we think the public should weigh in on whether public safety is adequate."
The consultant was chosen by a committee of high-level fire officials and financial analysts from the Utilities Department and the Administrative Services Department, Fire Chief Nick Marinaro told the committee.
With the city facing a projected $8.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011, council members are preparing for tough negotiations with the firefighters' union. Last week, the council passed a resolution calling the proposal in the petition "bad governance" and asking voters not to sign it.
Spitaleri said the union's goal is to receive between 8,000 and 10,000 signatures before its June 15 deadline. The petition has already garnered more than 3,000 signatures, he said.
Marinaro said the scope of the study didn't meet the intent of a 2003 city audit, which recommended a fresh analysis of staffing levels at the department. The new scope will give more consideration to minimum-staffing and overtime issues, he said.
"We just felt it was more prudent to erase the slate and start over," Marinaro said.