Closure of Foothills station ignites tension in Palo Alto Fire Department

Proposal would save $300K, but union says it would have safety impacts

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."


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24 people like this
Posted by maggie
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 19, 2016 at 11:00 am

maggie is a registered user.

Staffing a fire station in the foothills during the summer months should have the highest priority for the city council.

There seems to be plenty of money for new hires and high salaries for the city manager, Millions and millions budgeted for new bike routes and a fancy bike bridge (although there is no data to support the premise that more people will bike to work instead of driving) etc. etc.

12 people like this
Posted by Juan olive
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 19, 2016 at 11:10 am

I know this is going to sound like a broken record but you have to follow the money. I truly believe the money saved by closing it is going to buy someones child college education. Yes I mean the ones deciding how money is spent.

29 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 19, 2016 at 11:36 am

This outpost was the cushiest of assignments. beautiful scenery, lake to swim in and almost no calls. About time there was some sanity in staffing decisions. The fire department is really concerned about one thing, padding their overtime for retirement purposes. The pensions promised and the absurd rules that allows overtime to count toward retirement numbers has mortgaged future generations if not bankrupted them. Finally at least one good decision made.

13 people like this
Posted by kw
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jul 19, 2016 at 11:52 am

kw is a registered user.

Perhaps Taxpayer you don't live near the western hills or you might see it differently. A quick response to any fire here could be the difference between a minor fire and many homes lost. The cost of keeping the station open is insurance against this, just as we each continue pay fire insurance on our homes every year whether they burn down or not.

7 people like this
Posted by nat
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 19, 2016 at 11:55 am

If there is a medical emergency in the foothills, 20 minutes is much too long for a response. People can easily die in that time. The fact that so many of the calls were for medical reasons stresses even more the need for a staffed fire station there at all times.

3 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 19, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Why should we subsidize reach people?

7 people like this
Posted by kw
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jul 19, 2016 at 12:08 pm

kw is a registered user.

To Resident: Subsidize? Are you paying more property tax than the rest of us? Who pays for your fire station?

8 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 19, 2016 at 12:49 pm

I did not realize Los Altos Hills owners pay for Palo Alto Fire Department salaries. Maybe PAFD should station a helicopter at Foothils as well, pretty tough terrain for those 3 individuals protecting the 1000's of acres. Read the article, look between the lines, the PAFD is protecting only one thing.

3 people like this
Posted by Alice Smith
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 19, 2016 at 12:52 pm

Penny-wise and Dollar-foolish

12 people like this
Posted by Jay
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 19, 2016 at 2:07 pm

Either open the fire station 365 days or close it except on "high fire days". Medical incidents, auto accidents and fires happen all year long. Surprise that the foothill residents have never "pushed" to have this station open year round. Unless you get involve, don't complain when your house burns down or you are waiting 20 minutes for medical help.

12 people like this
Posted by Cece
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 19, 2016 at 2:32 pm

This fire station is only open from 8am to 8pm (12 hours per day) according to a Palo Alto firefighter I spoke to. I thought it was open 24 hours during the summer months. I'm with Jay, either open it year round or close it.

16 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer 2
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 19, 2016 at 2:57 pm

I don't understand why the city management, or residents pay any attention to the employee unions. The sole purpose of the union is to take as much money from the citizens as is possible, for the least amount of time served. The union fire employees are the worst offenders in this regard. This function should be outsourced to a private company. We would receive better service for 1/2 the cost/

1 person likes this
Posted by Why Not Stop Wnining Up There...
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 19, 2016 at 4:28 pm

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Facts
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 19, 2016 at 5:13 pm

@taxpayer. Fact: overtime doesn't count towards pensions.

It seems the union is saying the community should make the decision. I agree, we all pay taxes and want equal protection.

2 people like this
Posted by It's IT
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 19, 2016 at 5:24 pm

A resident of Barron Park defending the PAFD ?
How quickly we forget our history.

19 people like this
Posted by Samson
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 19, 2016 at 5:34 pm

$33k per call handled seems rather excessive. There are better ways to use the money.

8 people like this
Posted by Lazlo
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 19, 2016 at 7:13 pm

Perhaps poster Taxpayer 2 should be more concerned about how much the city manager and his non-union management buddies are soaking the city each year in salary and benefits. The real reason for closure of Fire Station 8 is Keene's promise to non-union city management employees that their salaries and retirement would stay secured with each cut in service to residents. Research on the salary and benefits Keene earns and you will be shocked. Research the number of six figure salary management jobs he has added in his tenure and you will be dismayed. Why are city services being cut? Go figure....

14 people like this
Posted by midtown matron
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 19, 2016 at 10:39 pm

I agree with the Fire Chief making the decision. The arguments made by the union reps seem very self-serving and not realistic about best ways to allocate funds. And there aren't unlimited funds!

15 people like this
Posted by Mark
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jul 20, 2016 at 7:21 am

I too agree with the Fire Chief. $33k per 911 call is ridiculous. All across the US, fire stations are either close or relocated because of the 911 call volume. This was the right decision.

7 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 20, 2016 at 8:03 am

Taxpayer is not too concerned about how much the city manager makes. All city managers make a lot of money, and they should. To be employed at the whim of elected city councils who typically have no idea on how to run a city, jobs in danger every election, having to sit thru constant boring city council meetings listening to the pontifications of our elected shoe salesman. God bless them. Now the unions who have run rough shod over these city councils getting every concession they ask for over the last 30 years, are finally getting some pushback. Imagine getting 90% of your last 2 years pay, starting in your early 50's for the rest of your life along with free medical for you and your family. No wonder there are 2000 applicants for every opening.

8 people like this
Posted by Merry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 20, 2016 at 8:20 am

if 33k is too much per call , what is the right price? Let it burn, baby burn ????? We had a fire in the Fothills Park very grateful station 8 responded to avoid losing our home.
Why do We have money for free kitchen garbage buckets but not essential fire service service protecting our foothills. Hmmmmmm

1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 20, 2016 at 10:12 am

I look at the home sales in the areas like Los Gatos - the homes are surrounded by trees and they do not have enough budget to protect these large homes. So people are clearing out now - take the money and run. The whole area is a potential fire storm, especially when the winds come up. The whole area in the foothills in Santa Clara and below needs some management to clear the weeds around the homes and clearing of brush. We need to be mind-full of the potential for major problems. Hire a lot of goats to help here - they are used to clear brush. The residents have to pitch in and take care of their area to clear the fire hazard areas.
Side note - I watch a fire in Maui and the wind was blowing embers that ignited new areas.
Bottom line - closing a fire department operation in the summer is foolhardy.

2 people like this
Posted by Bent
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jul 20, 2016 at 10:38 am

Instead PAFD ought to hire one or two additional firefighters so that overtime could be reduced. The cost of having Foothill open would then likely be less than $200,000 The cost of slower response to medical, fire or accident situations can easily exceed $200,000 and be serious for anybody injured or ill.

3 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer also
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 20, 2016 at 11:07 am

To "Taxpayer"

no , you cant swim in the Lake (not allowed thanks to liability)

I know your trying to paint a pretty picture of "rich" fire fighter swimming in a lake and being paid for it..BUT like most right wing tropes its a fiction.

Are you simply envious?

4 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 20, 2016 at 1:08 pm

To Taxpayer Also,

Before you make statements you cannot back up I would not post. I have personally been at the firehouse and have personally seen the fire persons swimming. Of course they asked the ranking office at the post if it was OK first. It may not be "Allowed" but it happens. $150,000 a year retirement does not make you rich here in the valley, but it ain't bad. Truth is not envy my friend.

5 people like this
Posted by Stanley
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 20, 2016 at 5:04 pm

Taxpayer, sorry, but I gotta call BS on this one. When did such an incident happen? Did you say anything about it to anyone? Report it if you were so incensed by it? Out of all the contact I've had with the Firefighters in this City, they are professional, courteous and I highly doubt they would risk the "public perception" nowadays....

I "lurk" on here and don't respond to many topics if at all, but when I see comments like yours, which are unsubstantiated and posted (IMO) to rile people up and create unnecessary drama/discussion about the PAFD; I have to comment. Try going down to your local station, talk to your Firefighters and you'll come to find out that they are not the devil you make them out to be.

My $.02

4 people like this
Posted by Lazlo
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 20, 2016 at 7:02 pm

Taxpayer [portion removed] claims 2000 applicants for each city job (WOW! Really!) Please provide proof of that claim and also names of firefighters joyfully swimming away while on duty. Maybe Taxpayer can explain to the public why increasing numbers of city employees have left due to the lack of his management skillls and those of his management "team". Taxpayer says the city manager deserves his salary because he has to sit thru boring city council meetings! Sounds like he is not working with council members to provide residents with city services and is more concerned with focusing on his salary and benefit package.His anti city employee rants fail to account for the six figure salaries of management that are bankrupting the city and forcing cuts in essential city services.

11 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 21, 2016 at 8:51 am

People: I have several good friends who are or were former PAFD personnel. I have visited them several times over the years at different stations including the Foothills station. I was not appalled , surprised or concerned with swimming and rowing in the lake. These were very physically fit people who wanted exercise instead of watching TV in the station on a beautiful day. Get over yourselves, the event happened, I was there and frankly was not a big deal in my mind then or now. Regarding 6 figure incomes, READ you local paper when salaries are published. The vast majority are Police and Fire , overtime, vacation pay and sick pay pad these numbers. Do the math as well, rank and file make up the majority of pension obligations, management although well compensated for the most part are a small burden in future pension obligations. City employees are leaving because of high housing costs and the terrible commute from the affordable areas, salaries and benefits are not the problem.
I may have exaggerated the number of applicants for PAFD, but below is an example from a newspaper regarding applications:
"1,600 apply for 5 firefighter jobs in Orange".....

And really, "go to the firehouse and....." take off your Birkenstocks and visit the real world.

10 people like this
Posted by Sammy
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 21, 2016 at 1:23 pm

When it cost 300k to keep a fire station open just for 3 months, 12 hour days with only 9 incidents in that time frame, you have to ask yourself is that using the resources wisely? A Fire Chief is hire by a city to make sound judgements on the budget, resources and serving the community. The Fire Chief made the right decision on closing this fire station. Maybe these funds can be put to better use in buying more equipment or extra training for the firefighters.
To the poster above who complained about the city managers making 6 figure salaries per year, most of the firefighters do too.

3 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 23, 2016 at 9:29 am

I presume the fire chief is capable and competent else he would not have the position that he does. He has determined that his department can take care of servicing this area based on the ground rules established in the reported article. For the rank and file Union to question his decisions is either insubordination and a huge non confidence vote or a self serving desire to further their financial interests. Perhaps the chief could enlighten the readership and the rank and file could articulate why they publicly questioned the chief's decision.

3 people like this
Posted by Stanley
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 23, 2016 at 12:13 pm

LTaxpayer, OK, you "have several good friends who are or were former PAFD personnel. I have visited them several times over the years at different stations including the Foothills station. I was not appalled , surprised or concerned with swimming and rowing in the lake."

How long ago was this and how long ago did they work for the PAFD? I could pretty much guarantee that IF I were to walk into my local Fire Station and ask (I too know some current Firefighters) about swimming in Boranda Lake, I'd get questionable looks. Swimming hasn't been allowed in the lake at Foothills park for well over a decade. So to base your argument on something that MAY have happened A LONG TIME AGO, is not only questionable on your knowledge of current issues AND again, just trying to stir up another anti-firefighter tirade. You Sir/Ma'am need to start basing your unsubstantiated BS on current info....

Again....just my $0.02

6 people like this
Posted by Brock
a resident of another community
on Jul 23, 2016 at 8:55 pm

Sounds like the fire union is just trying to protect their overtime.

6 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2016 at 9:15 am

[Portion removed.] Nobody is anti PAFD , a small comment suggesting that of all the assignments, the Foothills station was the cushiest sparked a major backlash. [Portion removed.] But the point of the article really was the union vs the management. My point was the union has had its way for a long time, about time there was some common sense push back.

6 people like this
Posted by Nutzola
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 26, 2016 at 6:09 pm

With all the fires every summer, especially this summer--and all the loss of human, plant and animal life that entails (to say nothing of loss of property), WHY in the world would you not want this station open 24/7 from May to October?

Even for valley residents, if the hills burn, the ash and smoke ALSO fall on the valley floor, causing breathing problems and a general mess.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Evergreen Park

on Sep 25, 2017 at 3:03 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

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

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