Palo Alto City Council members Monday night praised a report by outside consultants that recommends sweeping changes to the city's fire department.
While noting that some of the recommendations -– such as merging two fire stations -- are controversial and will require further analysis and discussion, council members appeared anxious to adopt smaller reforms as quickly as possible.
City Manager James Keene said he would return to the council in "roughly a month with an action plan and a potential implementation schedule of the recommendations, some of which can be done immediately."
The 190-page report blasted the fire department for a "leadership malaise" and outmoded practices, while acknowledging that it provides a high quality of service to Palo Alto residents.
In particular, there is an absence of relevant data for decision-making and excessive reliance on overtime, said Thomas Wieczorek, director of ICMA Center for Public Safety Excellence of Washington, D.C. Wieczorek presented his recommendations along with Stephen Brezler of TriData Division of System Planning Corp., which co-authored the report.
"Training for captains is poor, expectations for officer performance is low … and planning is mostly non-existent," Wieczorek said.
"You've become just kind of an OK department -- not dynamic," he said.
"You've got access to resources most communities would die to have -- a learning institution, Facebook, Google -- in your back yard that could make you a leader, a high-performing, forward-thinking department, that you just haven't taken advantage of."
"Minimum staffing requirements" mandated under union contract have led to fire staff cuts in other areas, including a data-related position that could have supported more strategic management decisions, he said.
Although most of the department's activity now comprises emergency medical services (EMS), 75 percent of its effort is still directed at fire suppression, the consultants said.
Between 2000 and 2009, the number of total incidents increased 19 percent, from 6,207 to 7,366, while EMS calls grew by 48 percent, from 2,742 to 4,070, they said.
Facilities and equipment are managed haphazardly, not strategically, they said. For example, ambulances that should be replaced after four years are now 10 years old, and the stations at Rinconada and Mitchell parks need major upgrades.
And locations of life-saving automated external defibrillators (AEDs) around the city are not tracked, so nobody knows where they are, they said.
The consultants recommend upper management changes, including creation of 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.
Firefighters' Union President Tony Spitaleri told the council he thinks many of the 48 recommendations in the report are attainable, and that they "move in the right direction," adding the union also "might have some disagreements."
Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said his agency would welcome opportunities to collaborate with Palo Alto. The Menlo fire district already serves Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and other portions of San Mateo County.
"The creek shouldn't be a moat between our two agencies -- it's not a bridge too far," Schapelhouman said.
Council members said they appreciated the consultants' focus on better use of data.
"A culture of continuous improvement, the thrust in data collection and measureable goals -- that's not only better for the organization, but will help members of the organization become enthused because they know they're improving," Council member Pat Burt said.
Burt and Council member Greg Scharff said they were troubled by the consultants' comments that barriers intended for traffic calming around the city "could severely impact your service level."
However, when asked to identify the specific locations of such barriers, the consultants were unable to do so.
Council member Greg Schmid questioned the logic of the recommendation to merge the Hanover Street and Arastradero Road fire stations into a new location at Arastradero and Hillview Avenue.
"Why did you pick that location? You can't even get to Barron Park from there," Schmid said.
Brezler said further study would be required before any final decision were made on a merger location.
Assistant City Manager Pamela Antil said city staff members will meet again with firefighters before sorting the consultants' recommendations into three buckets: those already being implemented; those requiring union negotiations; and those calling for further discussion or possibly a "blue ribbon" commission.
"I want to be clear that public safety is in my view the No. 1 function of what city government provides, and we're not planning to do anything that would put our firefighters or public at risk," Mayor Sid Espinosa said.
"This is about making us more efficient while maintaining service."