The Palo Alto Fire Department should merge its Hanover Street and Arastradero Road fire stations, reorganize top management and end the "minimum staffing" requirement in the fire-union contract, outside consultants are recommending in a new study.
The 190-page report, which the City Council will discuss Monday night, characterizes the city's Fire Department as one that provides top-notch emergency services but has major organizational deficiencies, particularly in areas such as fire prevention and training.
The study was conducted by ICMA, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes "best practices" in local governance, in partnership with TriData, a division of System Planning Corp., a Northern Virginia research and electronics company.
"The PAFD provides excellent service when responding to emergencies," the consultants concluded. "However, the PAFD, once considered a 'best example' fire organization, has become a stagnant organization and management is struggling, due in part to insufficient support staff."
Using data analysis and face-to-face interviews, the consultants evaluated fire-department response times; fire and emergency medical services (EMS) workloads; services and agreements with Stanford University; fire station and staffing locations and the use of overtime and auxiliary personnel.
The report includes 48 recommendations, including a new organizational structure in which a "public safety director" oversees both the police and fire operations; a single location for the Fire Department's senior staff to operate in; merging of Station 2 and Station 5 into a new station near the intersection of Arastradero Road and Hillview Avenue; and staffing Station 8 in the foothills only during "high fire" days, rather than throughout the summer.
The consultants' recommendation to merge the two stations was based on data showing "significant overlap in service coverage," according to the report.
Retaining the two stations is "not merited by current and projected demand and (there are) indications that existing locations no longer match current needs of the city as it has been built out since the stations were built in the 1960s," the report said.
The consultants also criticized the "minimum staffing" provision in Palo Alto's contract with its firefighters union. The provision, which has been in place since the late 1970s, requires the city to always have at least 29 firefighters on duty. The report stated that this provision has led to "decreased staffing flexibility as service needs change."
The lack of flexibility has meant the elimination of many administrative staff positions, some of which should be reinstated, the consultants said, including the Geographic Information System (GIS) data analyst and a battalion chief to plan and manage the training program.
But efforts to scrap the provision have been shot down in the past. The firefighters union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, has consistently fought efforts to end "minimum staffing," and it continues to resist job reductions in the department. Last year, the union petitioned to have Measure R placed on last November's ballot, which would have required any change in fire-department staffing levels to be approved by the electorate. It was shot down by 75 percent of voters.
"Though we understand the concern of the union to maintain an adequate staff to maintain safety, we disagree that the total minimum staff should be in the contract," the consultants wrote.
It would be reasonable, they wrote, to establish staffing guidelines for a fire engine or a ladder truck. But they wrote that the city "should never agree to a minimum staffing requirement that establishes the total force as this equates to establishing the level of service provided."
The new report also addressed another issue with a contentious history: staffing of Station 8 in the foothills. It recommends staffing the station only during "high fire" days, as determined by Cal Fire. Alternative staffing options include contracting with Cal Fire or another agency as well as investigating the use of infrared technology to monitor hot spots in the area and deploying staff as appropriate.
The station is currently open between July and November for 12 hours a day. Consultants found that in all of 2009, the station's Engine 8 responded to 17 calls and that the total workload for these calls was 12 hours. The cost to staff Station 8 was $188,000.
"The demand for services in Station 8's area is too low to justify the cost and other options may be available," the report stated.
Other recommendations are less divisive and are already being implemented by the city. The consultants urge Palo Alto to "regionalize" its fire and EMS training program and work with Los Altos, Mountain View and Sunnyvale toward a "boundary-less response network" -- a project the four cities are already pursuing.
"There is opportunity to improve service delivery and efficiency if Palo Alto and other jurisdictions combined to not only share stations but also to implement a boundary-less response model such that resources from any jurisdiction would respond regardless of the political boundary," the report states. "This approach would more than likely result in more service-sharing opportunities and improve efficiency because cities could share resources more than they do under the existing automatic-aid agreements."
Consultants also recommended that the city create a "public-safety director" position to oversee both police and fire operations. The fire chief position is currently vacant and Police Chief Dennis Burns has been serving as the interim fire chief since last July. The report recommends that the city make his dual-role permanent.
The report was released at a time of tension between the city and its firefighters. City Council members have frequently expressed frustrations about the rising costs in the Fire Department at a time when other departments are facing budget cuts. At last month's council retreat, City Manager James Keene talked about the need to bring the city's public-safety employees "into alignment" with other labor groups that have faced salary freezes and benefit reductions over the past two years.
The city and the firefighters union are currently negotiating a new labor agreement.
Keene said in a statement Wednesday that the consultants' review "allows us to benchmark our operations to other agencies and objectively assess what is working well and what needs refinement for us to provide responsive and cost-effective service to this community."
"I believe this report is an important step for us to identify ways to enhance the effectiveness of the Fire Department and better position it for the 21st century," he said.
Tony Spitaleri, president of Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, said Wednesday evening he was just beginning to read the voluminous report.
"There are a great many suggestions that would make the fire department a stronger one and would help the department meet the needs of the community," Spitaleri said.
However, he said, "The issue of minimum staffing is a real concern to us. We don't support staffing reductions that could lead to killing a firefighter or a citizen."