Palo Alto may merge police, fire departments

City seeks to lower administrative costs by creating a Public Safety Department to oversee fire, police operations

Seeking to curb costs in a time of tight budgets, Palo Alto is considering merging its Police and Fire departments.

City Manager James Keene told a City Council committee Thursday night that he is evaluating whether to consolidate the city's police and fire operations into one Public Safety Department. The move, he said, would create efficiencies by reducing administrative costs at a time when the city is facing years of budget challenges brought on by steeply rising pension and health-care costs.

City officials haven't yet decided whether to pursue the merger because they are waiting for the results of an independent analysis of the city's emergency medical services -- a report that is scheduled to be released this summer. But Keene indicated Thursday he is leaning toward creating a single department to oversee the two major public-safety functions.

"My own inclination is to have a public-safety department," Keene told the council's Finance Committee during the committee's discussion of fire and police budgets. "I just have to think that for the long-term at least, efficiencies on support, the administration backbone and all of those sorts of things are worthwhile."

Keene also said he believes co-locating the police and fire operations in one public-safety facility is in the "long-term interest of our community."

Palo Alto's two public-safety departments already share the same leader -- Dennis Burns, who is both the police chief and the acting fire chief. A recent report from the consulting firms TriData and ICMA, which analyzed the city's Fire Department operations, recommended making the "public safety director" position permanent.

The city's exploration of a public-safety merger is part of a broader effort to cut costs by considering new models for providing services. Palo Alto is also working with Mountain View and Los Altos to set up a shared dispatch system that would allow the three cities to easily back each other up during emergencies -- a system that is also expected to bring long-term savings and efficiencies.

"It's just very clear that we wouldn't be able to in any place keep doing things the way they've always been done," Keene said.

These broad, strategic efforts will not, however, lead to immediate savings. Instead, Keene and the council plan to balance the fiscal year 2012 budget largely by assuming that the city's firefighter and police unions will make major concessions. The firefighters' contract expired last year, and the city has not been able to reach a new labor agreement with the firefighters' union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319. The parties are preparing to take their labor dispute to binding arbitration this fall.

The police union's contract will expire June 30.

Despite the stalled negotiations with the firefighters' union, the council and Keene are banking on achieving $4.3 million in savings from the two labor groups. If that doesn't work, they plan to institute staffing and service cuts in the middle of the fiscal year.

Committee Chair Greg Scharff said he is confident the Palo Alto Police Officers Association, which has agreed to defer its members' raises in the past, will make the necessary concessions to avoid layoffs. He said he was less confident when it comes to the firefighters.

"There's a big difference between police and fire," Scharff said. "All indications have been that police will work with us in terms of union negotiations. We are not at an impasse; we are not going to arbitration.

"I don't feel that way about fire," he added. "The fire (union's) actions speak for themselves."

The concessions from the two labor groups aren't reflected in Keene's proposed budgets for the Police and Fire departments, each of which is slated to rise by about $1 million in fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1. The anticipated savings are, however, included in a "non-departmental budget" category, which staff said will be used to offset the rising expenditures and ultimately balance the budget.

The committee supported the bulk of Keene's recommendations for the police and fire budgets but concluded its discussion with more questions than answers, particularly when it comes to firefighters. The committee unanimously approved the proposed police budget but voted to continue its discussion of the fire budget to a later date. The committee also gave Fire Department officials the arduous task of identifying department savings that would not impact service levels.

The assignment is particularly tricky given the minimum-staffing provision in the fire union's contract -- a provision that requires 29 firefighters to be on duty at all times. The provision constrains the city's ability to reduce staffing levels and lower expenditures in the Fire Department.

"If we don't come to an agreement on minimum staffing, we don't come to agreement on wages and benefits," Scharff said.

Councilman Greg Schmid said a major key to getting the public-safety budgets balanced is to take a closer look at the staffing levels in the Fire Department. He noted that firefighters' staffing level exceeds that of the police officers by about 25 percent.

"It seems clear the staffing issue is a major one," Schmid said. "It seems to fall on the shoulders of the Fire rather than the Police department."

The committee agreed that the 2012 budget should be balanced without major service cuts or elimination of such programs as school crossing guards and the Police Department's traffic team -- options that were on the table last year. Scharff called for more "innovation" and said he doesn't see any reason why any services should be cut. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd agreed.

"We're looking for innovation and creativity to make this work for everybody," Shepherd said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of another community
on May 5, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Interesting, comparing the budgets and staffing of the Police and Fire Departments.

There are reasons the fire department has more staffing. The main reason is that the Fire department staffs one Fire Station on the Stanford Campus and another Fire Station on the SLAC property. These areas are NOT covered by Palo Alto PD. This requires more employees to work at these stations. It is also important to note that the City of Palo Alto receives a significant sum of money for providing fire services to Stanford and SLAC.

Another reason Palo Alto Fire Department has additional staffing is that it provides paramedic ambulance transport. Of course it requires more personnel to staff the ambulances. And Palo Alto is the only Fire Dept in Santa Clara county that provides this service. A few other cities in the Bay Area have this service, such as Piedmont, Moraga, Orinda, Berkeley, Danville, and Alamo. It has been deemed a desirable service by those communities.

One has to be careful when making comparisons and not knowing all of the details.

Like this comment
Posted by Question
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 6, 2011 at 12:48 am

What's the deal w/the PA firefighters union? Why does it have such an acrimonious reputation?

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on May 6, 2011 at 1:30 am

Councilman Schmid says "fire dept staffing exceeds police staffing by about 25%"???
I just looked at CPA budget online and it says PAPD has about 157 full time positions, it says PAFD has 121.
As another person already noted, the PAFD also staffs two stations under contract with Stanford University. One on campus and one at SLAC. Those stations account for about 20 positions. So I am curious how the councilman came up with his figure and position?
Stanford also pays a large portion of PAFD operating budget, which doesnt cost PA residents a dime.
PAPD does not cover Stanford or SLAC. Stanford University has its own police force.
I also find Councilman Scharff's comments curious? staffing levels for a department and wages and benefits for employees are separate issues. Of course overall budget costs depend on the number of employees total for a dept. But he seems to be saying that the FFs salary and benefits will reduced unless the FFs agree to staffing cuts
the council obviously wants. Employee wages and benefits for all police and fire depts are pretty much based on the average for that area, not the size or number of employees for that particular dept.
Also, is the City Council of Palo Alto conducting contract talks with the news papers and press? or are they working with employee groups in good faith?
Sounds like Councilman Scharff is making statements for the entire Council and City when he uses the word "we"? He is speaking for the entire Council it seems.
It might be a good idea if some members of the Council do some fact checking before they start saying things about staffing levels being higher in the FD over the PD when the Cities own published numbers don't show that to be the actual case.

Like this comment
Posted by Fred Logo
a resident of College Terrace
on May 6, 2011 at 5:12 am

They are cutting the budgets too deep and this is going to bring unemployment and reduced services. Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2011 at 8:10 am

Neighbor says: "The main reason is that the Fire department staffs one Fire Station on the Stanford Campus and another Fire Station on the SLAC property." While this may be true, it is not the reason Palo Alto is overstaffed.

The reason is Union contracts with designated staffing levels. While we may have an around 10 or 12 police officers on duty at any time, the firefighters' contract requires we must have 29 firefighters on duty at all times.

We need to close two fire stations and reduce staffing. Whenever there is a major fire back up is called in from Mountain View and/or Menlo Park anyway, we don't need 29 firefighters on duty at all times.

I see on duty Palo Alto firefighters with their fire trucks at the Safeway stores in both Mountain View and Menlo Park. Who pays for the gas?!!

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2011 at 8:33 am

> it says PAPD has about 157 full time positions, it says PAFD has 121.

There are about 90 sworn officers in the PD. The rest of the head count is civilian.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2011 at 8:41 am

> the firefighters' contract requires we must have 29 firefighters
> on duty at all times.

Correct. The problem is coming up with a good number of firefighters to be on duty. Clearly fighting a big fire requires a large number of firefighters. As it turns out, there aren't many fires in Palo Alto every day.

> We need to close two fire stations and reduce staffing.


> Whenever there is a major fire back up is called in from
> Mountain View and/or Menlo Park anyway, we don't need
> 29 firefighters on duty at all times.

"Regionalizing" the fire departments (at least) would allow these resources to be effective scheduled, and reduce the need for on-duty public safety types. Mutual Aid effectively gives each city access to more public safety resources, by merging is a better solution.

> Who pays for the gas?!!

We do. This is not a big deal. However, what is a big deal is that in order to buy groceries, a fire rig is used, rather than an SUV, because of "work rules" that disallow (effectively) one of the on-duty firefighters to take his personal car, or a department vehicle, to the market. The rig must go, with all of the firefighters, so that if there is a callout during the time that they are shopping, the fully-manned rig can leave from the store and go to the scene of the fire.

This is another of those crazy rules that costs us a lot of money, and doesn't make us any safer.

Like this comment
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on May 6, 2011 at 8:58 am

I am glad to see the PA city council looking at new and different ways of providing safety services. I am concerned about merging police and fire. Police provide the social contract that ensures laws are enforced. It is a unique service and best kept in house and managed locally. The services the pafd provides is basically a commodity and can be outsurced. There are many ways to purchase the services the pafd provides. It is clear that the pafd has become a group of overpaid union militants that spend more time sleeping and shopping than working. And they want to keep it that way. I would encourage the PA city council to look at outsourcing the pafd contract to Wackenhut. The City could eliminate all of the issues of pension liability and pay the market rate (not the inflated, arbitrated, over priced union cost). Palo could get improved service, at 50% of the cost.

As far as the fire trucks and seeing them at Safeway and Costco ... the city should forbid ff's from shopping while on the job. They can bring their food to work like normal folks do. Problem is that they don't have much to do in the middle of the day so the "shopping trip" becomes the way to kill time.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2011 at 9:46 am

Thank you Joe, Taxpayer and Resident for pointing out the differences in the functions of police and fire. Let's compare staffing:

Police - 90 sworn officers
Fire - 109 plus 3 on the Basic Life Support transport program.
The rest of each dept. are civilians.

Calls for Service:
Police - 153 calls per day - most eventually requiring an officer to handle.
Fire - 20 calls per day with less than 1 per day are for fire and 3 a day for false alarms. More than 50% of the total are for medical.

Regional fire service is the way to go.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2011 at 9:59 am

Here's a link to Wackenhut Services, Inc.:

Web Link

It might be interesting to chase up any publicly available information on contract details that Wackenhut has negotiated with public entities, to see how they "cost out".

The Palo Alto Fire Department has three major sections: Fire Suppression, Emergency Medical Response (Ambulances), and Hazardous Materials Inspection/Emergency Response. Each of these sections could be outsourced, with oversight retained by Public Safety Department personnel.

There is nothing about firefighting, emergency response, or hazmat response/inspection that can't be done by the private sector. There is not "magic" about being a City employee that gives you insights into pointing a house at a burning building. Remember, 2/3rds of America's firefighters are volunteers--who sacrifice a lot more to help keep their communities safe than the unionized, professional, firefighters do in the big cities.

Like this comment
Posted by danos
a resident of another community
on May 6, 2011 at 10:11 am

"Police provide the social contract that ensures laws are enforced."

- Very true. Civil society won't remain civil for long without someone to enforce the rules.

EMS, on the other hand, can and should be outsourced. As another poster correctly points out: "Palo Alto is the only Fire Dept in Santa Clara county that provides this service." Every other city uses AMR.

And firefighting? Most definitely outsource-able or merge-able.

Like this comment
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Midtown
on May 6, 2011 at 11:37 am

This certainly doesn't sit well with me.

The fire department has always provided people with a sense of safety and of being the "good guys."

Too often that seems not to be the case with the police as their line of duty seems to harden them against the stress and their very own humanity.

I vote "no." but then with everything Palo Alto, that doesn't seem to matter as they pretty much "pretend" to listen to the population and then do as they darn well please.

Sigh. I remember when I loved this town because of what it was instead of in spite of what it is becoming.

Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on May 6, 2011 at 12:05 pm

I'd like to commend the comments so far on this story about the possible merging of Fire and Police into one entity.

So often I think "who are these people?" when reading comments on Town Square. The comments so far on this article are informative and interesting, backed up with facts and not knee-jerk bashing of city workers.

Like this comment
Posted by Jon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2011 at 12:05 pm

I agree with Joe. It's time we outsourced the whole fire dept starting with EMR. These staffing levels are ridiculous. It's really a shame the city council is so feeble in dealing with these issues...

Like this comment
Posted by Michaela
a resident of Downtown North
on May 6, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Absolutely agree. The FD must be privatized. We are paying for far too much bloat and inefficiency.

I think the Measure R defeat was a pretty good sign that Palo Alto won't sit back and watch our city turn into Bell, but keeping the waste to a level decided through compromise with the fire union is likewise unacceptable. The most cost effective solution must be adopted. The union should spend less time trying to guard its spot at the trough and more time figuring out how to deliver more cost effective value to the people, to narrow the gap between what we're getting now and what we could get through privatization.

Like this comment
Posted by tpar
a resident of Midtown
on May 10, 2011 at 8:32 am

Do you have any idea how much this city spends on it's city managers ?? Why does Mr. Keene need 3 assistant city managers that get paid well over 200k not to mention his salary ... So thats almost a million on 4 people who do exactly what? So lets merge police and fire !! Great Idea!!! take a look at how much the Sunnyvale DPS get paid. we will have to give a huge raise to them.. Why dont we look at the real issues and how this city is run? why is all the business moving to MV and MP ? The problems with this city are from the top down . Its time Mr Keene and his staff are accountable to the public and not just the city council.

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on May 10, 2011 at 9:02 am

I am not promoting or in favor of switching to private contractors providing basic services, but for all those people saying the FD should be outsourced I would ask what service the City provides couldnt be?
Seems to me every single department in the city could be private sector or regional. Stanford University has their own police, Stanford is a private institution. CHP, CA State Police, etc.
There are private companies doing police work all over the world.
The City Managers office most certainly could be private contractor. They run the city, one would think a private company in charge of managing the City would be exactly what the pro private sector want.

Like this comment
Posted by danos
a resident of another community
on May 10, 2011 at 10:21 am


Law enforcement officers are sworn agents of the state, and can't be outsourced to private corporations. But of course you know that.

Stanford police are actually sheriff's deputies. Several south bay communities like Cupertino and Saratoga also contract with the sheriff for police services. No reason Palo Alto couldn't do the same; it has roughly the same population as Cupertino.

I fully agree with you that most - if not all - other city services should be outsourced to private companies however. Including fire and EMS.

Like this comment
Posted by Antoine Dodson
a resident of another community
on May 10, 2011 at 11:03 pm

High five TPAR (love the handle BTW..., wink).

As far as the merger goes, it all sounds good on paper. Practicality and implementation is a whole other animal. It's seems like a reasonable idea since A1 is doing two jobs but in the end, an awesome chief will have a shorter shelf life and it may not necessarily streamline the budget.

Public employees have been the scapegoat far too long. This isn't the solution either.

Like this comment
Posted by yetmore
a resident of Midtown
on May 11, 2011 at 12:26 am

Seems the senior city staff is still at it. Cannot hide any longer the squandering of city funds, uh-hum, public funds so to cover it up for starters they got rid of gobs of worker bee employees. The professional advice then was to reduce management positions significantly. Didn't happen. Now that basically the worker bees (SEIU) are temporarily in check, the Police and Fire personnel are the next line of attack via union-busting (in general), mergers, call it what you will, while senior city staff go further to distract from the real budget planning (or lack thereof) problems. Lets blend (lay off) safety personnel. This will be more efficient (save money for our budget mess).

Professional and internal audit information has said: Reduce the management employees to non-management staff ratio. Industry standard for government jobs was 1:10-12. And what has really happened in "the bad economic times"? The management:non-management ratio was 1:4 and then fixed (yes fixed) by senior city staff to a 1:2.7 ratio. And that my folks is why the city budget numbers and verbage DOES NOT match what they are actually doing. Seems Mr. Keene is extremely well at talking the talk. The walking the walk part has much to be desired. Let us all remember that the city budget is PUBLIC FUNDS. It is OUR money you are playing with Dear Sirs.

Like this comment
Posted by Sumsitup
a resident of another community
on May 11, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Why don't we ever get to hear from the unions? It seems that all of the information in the paper is reported from the city.

Remember that there is always 1) your side of the story, 2) their side of the story & 3) the truth.

Sounds like we get 1 out of 3 with Palo Alto online. If my math is right that's 33.3% Way back when I went to school that is an "F" grade.

Like this comment
Posted by Eric Edwards
a resident of another community
on May 24, 2011 at 1:46 am

Just looking from the outside...

Fire staffing requires minimum of three per engine (Cpat. Engineer and Firefighter/Paramedic or EMT). Also NFPA requires a two in two out rule (Two FF's in a burning building and two firefighters outside at the very minimum, SAFETY ISSUE). So you have too look at how many fire stations PA has then times by three employees. Also you need a Chief to to be in charge when you have a fire. That's why fire staffing is more than a police department on any given day and why you have to have a minimum staffing of 29 for Palo Alto.

The police department only needs seven to eight per shift. A Watch Commander, Sgt., Agents and police officers to cover the city for 11 hours. Also the call volume is way different than fire. Police have to deal with barking dogs, assaults, traffic collisions, check frauds, domestic violence calls, transient issues, public intoxication calls, drunk drivers, fights calls, burglaries and the list can go on. A patrol officer can answer between 10 to 25 calls per day on any given shift.

So that is why the number of police and fire personal are the way it is. If the city wants to do public safety then follow Sunnyvale's model. It does work.

Like this comment
Posted by al norte sm
a resident of another community
on May 24, 2011 at 9:29 am

Uh, oh, "taxpayer"'s on his Wackenhut bandwagon again! How many times have you tried to peddle those guys in these forums?!?

You want a PRIVATIZED, lowest-bidder company that doesn't give a hoot about protecting your family?

Speaking of "hoot" - from a previous post in another thread:

- - - - - -

"Wackenhut? The vodka shots held in place by their buddies' "cheeks" Wackenhut?

Contractors. First priority is shareholders and profit, that's corporate law. You want to count on a for-profit to save your grandchild?

Photos form OUR embassy in Kabul, Wackenhut "guards" (warning - nsfw) Web Link"

- - - - - -

Too funny, you want to reward the guys who are privatized mercenaries that protect our embassies by doing vodka shots out of their butts.

Reward them by giving them a contract to protect your family and Palo Alto?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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