For the past three decades, the seasonal fire station at Foothills Park has served as an insurance policy of sorts for the rolling, rural expanses on the west side of Palo Alto.
Built in 1986 and traditionally staffed only during the fire season (which is generally between July and October), Station 8 typically gets only a few dozen calls per season. As a result, it has been subject to numerous community debates over the years, with officials wondering whether it's worth the cost.
The latest of these debates flared up this month, when the city's firefighters union lashed out against a decision by Fire Chief Eric Nickel not to keep Station 8 fully staffed during the current fire season. Instead, the station will now only be staffed during high-risk days. In arguing for the change, Nickel said that the move would save the department about $300,000 in overtime costs and noted that even without the station, the department will still be able to meet its target for responding to incidents on time (in rural areas, the standard is 20 minutes, 90 percent of the time).
Given that medical calls now make up more than two-thirds of the incidents that the department responds to, Nickel said it's hard to justify spending this kind of money on a fire station that last summer received a total of 19 calls over 137 days, with 10 of those calls coming during times when the station was closed (it has typically been staffed for 12 hours per day).
Furthermore, none of the calls last year involved fires. Of the nine calls to which an engine was dispatched from Station 8, five were for medical aid, two were for accidents that involved injuries, one was for a smoke check and another was a "good intent" call involving an overheated car. The goal, Nickel said, is to use resources more efficiently. And given the fact that the department still has a hard time keeping up with all the medical calls, the resources saved here would be used to beef up the ambulance operation.
"It's very difficult for me to look at taxpayer dollars and say, 'We're going to spend $300,000 in overtime for nine calls,'" Nickel told the Weekly.
Nickel also highlighted the city's automatic mutual-aid agreements with Santa Clara County and the Woodside Fire Protection District, which would prompt responses from those agencies if a major fire were to break out in the Foothills.
But from the union perspective, the decision to keep Station 8 closed for most of the summer is ill-advised. Fire Captain Ryan Stoddard, president of International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1319, said the union believes that the station's closure would hinder the city's ability to respond to incidents in the Foothills area.
"They're calling it a calculated risk," Stoddard said. "But we see it as a gamble not worth taking."
While acknowledging that the call volume at Station 8 is low, Stoddard highlighted the importance of a fire engine to be able to get to the scene as quickly as possible to contain a fire. He pointed to the June 17 brush fire in Los Gatos, which was caused by a vehicle fire and which prompted the temporary closure of U.S. Highway 17. Because firefighters were able to get to the scene within minutes, they were able to quickly contain it, Stoddard said.
While firefighters agree that medical responses are a growing issue, Stoddard said, they aren't convinced that reducing staffing at Station 8 is the best way to address this issue.
"Why would we rob Peter to pay Paul?" Stoddard said. "Because we have more medical calls in the city to cover, we need to find ways to cover them. But we shouldn't take away coverage from other locations."
The union is also concerned about how this decision was made, Stoddard said. The station's closure is not highlighted in the fire department's budget and it wasn't mentioned during the June hearing when the City Council adopted the budget for Fiscal Year 2017. Stoddard said the decision was made unilaterally, without input from the firefighters or the community.
Nickel countered that the department is trying to be as open and transparent as it can about this decision, which was arrived at based on objective data and a detailed analysis. By the same token, the department will go off "objective, scientific data measurements" in determining which days to staff the station going forward.
"If the temperature is up, the humidity is down and the winds are blowing, we're absolutely going to have a fire engine out there," Nickel said.
Given the protracted nature of the city's Station 8 debate, each side has plenty of documents to support its cases. In 2011, the city commissioned a Fire Services Utilization and Resources Study, which evaluated all the resources and policies in the fire department resources and made recommendations about ways to make operations more efficient. Given the costs of staffing Station 8 and the returns, "questioning whether Station 8 should be staffed is justified," the study stated.
The study argued that assuming that a fire will occur only between July and October makes no sense, given that brush fires can occur at any time of the year. It recommended that the city install infrared technology that would allow it to monitor the entire wildland region on a 24/7 basis. It also recommended that the city consider alternate models for providing service to the Foothills area, either by contracting with Cal Fire (or another agency), developing an auxiliary from the city's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program for emergency-response volunteers, or relying more on cross-staffing from another station.
The report recommends that the city "discontinue staffing of Station 8 using overtime on the existing schedule of 90 days and instead staff the station only during high fire days as determined by Cal Fire."
Stoddard, however, noted that the report focuses exclusively on efficiency and does not consider best practices for planning for wildland fires. He pointed to the Palo Alto Foothills Fire Management Plan, which was last updated in 2009, and focuses on the effect of fire hazards in the Palo Alto Foothills area. The plan recommends maintaining traditional staffing levels at Station 8.
"Response times for incidents are significantly longer from other stations, even when considering mutual aid offered by other jurisdictions," the plan states. "The fire behavior analysis indicates the potential for fast-moving fires of high intensity, further justifying the current staffing levels."