Cities may share dispatchers -- 'no fire merger'

Officials from Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos to discuss sharing public-safety resources

Lean budget times are prompting Palo Alto to take a fresh look at sharing dispatch services with public-safety departments in surrounding cities, including Los Altos and Mountain View, City Manager James Keene told the Weekly today.

But merging fire departments is not an option that is expected to be on the agenda.

"We want to talk about whatever opportunities there are for sharing services, but it's safe to say that this is not a meeting to talk about consolidation," Keene said. The same is true relating to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, he said.

Keene said Palo Alto already has multiple facilities that provide regional services, including the city's Animal Shelter and the Regional Water Quality Treatment Plant near the baylands.

In the next few weeks, Keene is scheduled to meet with city managers of Mountain View and Los Altos to talk about other cost-sharing opportunities, particularly those relating to public safety.

Dispatch services could provide one such opportunity, Keene said. Palo Alto already has mutual-aid agreements with surrounding cities, and public-safety departments around the region have made an effort to use compatible communications technology.

"What we've done already in the region is to start to move to a standardized technological platform among the different public-safety agencies so that everyone is on the same frequencies and (using) the same technology," Keene said.

Palo Alto has long been planning to build a new public-safety building that would replace the city's undersized and seismically unsound police headquarters. But the economic downturn, which ushered in several years of budget deficits, has forced the city to set aside the plan and consider other options.

With the public-safety-building project on hold, Keene said he decided to reach out to Mountain View and Los Altos to discuss opportunities for sharing resources.

Over the past month, the topic of changing Palo Alto's model for delivering public-safety services emerged during hearings on the city's 2011 budget, which the City Council adopted Monday night.

Retired Fire Chief Nick Marinaro, whose last day on the job was Tuesday, told the council's Finance Committee at a May meeting that the city could save money by eliminating his position and having a Public Safety Director oversee both the fire and police departments. Marinaro did not recommend that, however.

On June 25, Keene named Police Chief Dennis Burns as the city's interim fire chief, an appointment that effectively makes Burns the city's public safety director. Keene specified that the city does not intend to merge the two departments and said Burns would only remain in this position until the city finds a new fire chief.

In a separate process, the city is also hiring a consultant to evaluate staffing levels in the Fire Department. This study is being done against a backdrop of the firefighters' union local pushing an initiative for the November election that would freeze closure of fire stations or reduction of personnel without a citywide vote.

Assistant City Manager Pamela Antil told the Weekly that the consultant's study is scheduled for a fall release. The study is expected to take a look at possible efficiencies, including examining the department's existing mutual-aid agreements with other jurisdictions.

But the study is not exploring the possibility of merging Palo Alto's Fire Department with those in other cities, she said.

"We like having our own Fire Department," Antil said.

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Like this comment
Posted by mythquote
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 30, 2010 at 12:55 pm

"We like having our own Fire Department," Antil said.

I wonder why "we just don't have the money to pay for it" got left off the quote?

Like this comment
Posted by Gary Ruppel
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Just because we "like having our own fire department" is certainly no valid reason not to consider consolidation with neighboring agencies. I would like to have lots of things, however lots of those I cannot afford. The City is just like it's citizens in this regard.

Like this comment
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 30, 2010 at 1:11 pm

I doubt "consolidating" would save much money. I would be concerned that the result would be less local control, more bureacracy and more staff positions, and more power to the union. Might even cost more.

I think the long term solution is a form of competition that involves outsourcing. I'd like to see at least two or three regional organization that provide fire services and let them bid on contracts with the cities. The cities would keep the stations and sent out RFQ's for the level of support they want. A large regional organization that was focused on the bottom line would do a much better job of managing the resources. Firefighting is not all that complicated and a good portion of the time (most of the time) the manpower and equipment is sitting idle. A regional organization could do a much more efficient job of utilizing recources and providing efficient coverage. The old model was OK, but the unions have ruined it. There is no way PA should be paying (on average) $115K per ff when the national average is $45K. It is time for a more efficient operation.

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of another community
on Jun 30, 2010 at 1:53 pm

"national average is $45k" for a firefighter. Hmmm, is that a fair comparison?

I don't think so, the cost of living varies widely across the US. The average price of a house in the United States in under $200k, but the average price of a house in Palo Alto is over $1 million. That is five times the average.

The salaries of many public employees may need to be looked at, but from a more regional perspective, not by comparing the salaries to the national average.

Like this comment
Posted by Todd
a resident of Stanford
on Jun 30, 2010 at 3:06 pm

The Daily Post story today was wrong about the three fire departments merging. Daily Post wrong again.

Like this comment
Posted by Firefighter
a resident of another community
on Jun 30, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Palo Alto used to dispatch for Mt. View Fire until the late 80's.

Like this comment
Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm

"With the public-safety-building project on hold, Keene said he decided to reach out to Mountain View and Los Altos to discuss opportunities for sharing resources."

This is a very wise move by Keene, I believe.

"But the study is not exploring the possibility of merging Palo Alto's Fire Department with those in other cities, she said.

"We like having our own Fire Department," Antil said."

At a minimum, contemplation of consolidation -- merging Palo Alto's fire service with those of other nearby communities -- is a wise move. It's always best to have options, to price one alternative against another. Examination of consolidation allows City of Palo Alto management to negotiate wisely and prudently with the existing Fire Dept employee union. If study of consolidation is not on the table at present, Keene should bring it forward for consideration very soon.

In particular, significant pension reductions should be under consideration here; it's time to roll back prior increases, given under much better economic circumstances.

Above all else, manage the City revenue streams well and keep expenses well in line with revenues.

Like this comment
Posted by JBR
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 1, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Turns out the Weekly’s story above is wrong. The Post quoted Keene today as saying the option of merging the department is still a possibility. Why doesn’t the Weekly correct errors it makes?

Like this comment
Posted by Been Around
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 2, 2010 at 10:39 am

Keene would be crazy if he didn't talk about merging fire departments, but that's a VERY TOUCHY subject in Palo Alto, so of course he's going to downplay any merger discussions. I get the feeling that Mtn. View City Manager Duggan let the cat out of the bag when he told the Post how broad the discussions between the cities might become.

Like this comment
Posted by Tim
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 3, 2010 at 10:21 am

NEWSFLASH! No merger for aleast two years. SJ Mercury News today: Mt. View Firefighters extened their contract for another two years and received (in year 2011-12), a 3.2% raise.

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