Palo Alto's Fire Department suffers from years of shoddy planning, insufficient training, a "leadership malaise" and a rigid staffing system that makes it nearly impossible for the department to deploy firefighters efficiently, according to consultants who have spent the past several months analyzing its operations.
The scathing findings emerged during Monday night's study session on the department's staffing levels -- a subject of last November's ballot measure. The city's two consulting firms, TriData and ICMA Consulting Services, presented their preliminary findings to the City Council Monday night. They are scheduled to release a final report in February.
The final report is expected to offer a range of bold recommendations, including merging the administration of the city's police and fire departments, devoting more resources to public education and prevention activities and possibly merging operations of Station 2 on Page Mill Road and Station 5 on Arastradero Road.
Staffing levels in the department have recently emerged as the most contentious topic in the ongoing contract negotiations between the city and its largest firefighters union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319.
The two sides have persistently clashed over staffing, overtime and a budget that swelled as other city departments experienced layoffs and service reductions.
Last month, city voters overwhelmingly rejected a union-supported ballot measure that would have frozen department staffing levels and forced the city to hold an election before it could close a fire station or reduce staffing. The union pointed to the ongoing staffing study as evidence that the council is planning to cut staffing to dangerous levels.
But the city's consultants claimed Monday that the current staffing levels are by and large arbitrary and that the present system hampers efficiency. The city's contract with the union includes a "minimum staffing" provision that requires the department to always have at least 29 firefighters on duty. This provision keeps the city from allocating its staffing efficiently, said Tom Wieczorek, the project manager from ICMA.
Wieczorek said he has never encountered an organization that has "the same workload at 2 a.m. in the morning and at 2 p.m. in the afternoon.
"By setting minimum staffing, you're never able to adjust your staffing to meet the demand," he said. "That becomes a real challenge going forward.
"You don't have the flexibility to adjust and move those people around at those different times."
The consultants concluded that the city's firefighters are highly professional and perform an "outstanding job" when it comes to everyday operations. But they also found that the department's fire-prevention, public education and training efforts have been relatively poor and its planning sorely lacking. They attributed the shortcomings largely to recent staffing reductions in the department administration -- reductions that forced department leaders to focus on day-to-day operations rather than the future.
"There have been a lot of positions eliminated so that planning in the Fire Department is almost nonexistent," said Stephen Brezler, a consultant with TriData. "Senior staff is too busy trying to put out fires and just kind of reacting to the daily issues -- not planning."
Brezler said the department could improve its operations and data management by merging its administrative functions with the Police Department, which he said does a much better job collecting and analyzing data. The fact that Police Chief Dennis Burns also serves as an interim fire chief creates an opportunity for the city to consolidate the two departments' human resources, budget, information technology and planning operations -- areas where the consultant said the department is "particularly weak."
"We think there is an opportunity to merge the organizations into a hybrid public safety organization," Brezler said.
Tony Spitaleri, president of the firefighters union, had blasted the ongoing study before the November election as a pretext by the city to reduce staffing levels to a dangerous low. Despite his earlier reservations, Spitaleri told the Weekly after the consultants' presentation that the report largely confirms what the firefighters have been saying all along -- that years of cuts in the department's administration have severely harmed operations.
Spitaleri was one of more than a dozen union members who attended the Monday hearing. The group assembled for a brief meeting with Burns immediately after the consultants' presentation.
"The report is a black eye for the city; it's not for the Fire Department," Spitaleri told the Weekly after the meeting. "They gutted everything we had at the top."