The Palo Alto Fire Department plans to eliminate 11 positions -- roughly 10 percent of its workforce -- to deal with falling revenues from its contract with Stanford University.
The staffing reduction, which the City Council is set to approve on Oct. 16, would eliminate seven firefighter positions and four apparatus-operator positions. Fire Chief Eric Nickel said the change is expected to save about $1.5 million annually, while maintaining service levels that will allow the department to meet its performance standards.
The staffing change, Nickel said, will effectively mean that there would be one fewer firefighter on duty during the day and three fewer during the night hours. But the city also plans to boost its medical-response operation by adding a fourth ambulance to supplement the three it currently employs.
The changes are driven by both revenue reductions and by the changing nature of the community's needs. The city has been providing Stanford with fire services since 1976, though the relationship was imperiled in 2013, when the university gave the city a two-year cancellation notice.
Since then, the city and Stanford have been mired in protracted negotiations, with the university arguing that it is paying more than its fair share for the fire services (particularly after it closed in 2012 a fire station at Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory). Palo Alto has continued to provide the university with fire service under a series of short-term contracts that reduced Stanford's contribution by about 25 percent, or $2 million.
The council acknowledged the reduction in Stanford's reimbursement in June, when it approved a budget with an unspecified expenditure reduction of $1.3 million. Since then, management and the main fire union, International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1319, have held 14 meet-and-confer sessions to identify cost-reduction opportunities.
The proposal that the department came up with after the negotiations calls for reducing daily staffing on a ladder truck from four to three personnel (the same level it was before 2013); cross-staffing an engine and an ambulance at three of the six stations (which allows firefighters to use either apparatus, depending on the service call), and bumping up the number of ambulances operating between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. -- the hours during which two-thirds of the service calls occur -- from three to four.
A new report from the Fire Department notes that the new model would deploy 26 firefighters, EMTs and paramedics each day between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. and 24 firefighters between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., when demand is lowest.
Nickel told the Weekly that the move will not only save money, but will allow the department to use its resources more efficiently. A key feature of the new service model, Nickel said, is having more people on duty during peak call times and fewer during less busy hours.
"We have crews today that are running less than an hour's worth of calls per day," Nickel said.
To come up with the optimal model, Nickel said the department relied on software that allows users to shift resources around the city and analyze the potential impact of these shifts, based on call data and other statistics. The new model, he said, will allow the department to continue to meet its goal of responding to emergency calls in eight minutes or fewer 90 percent of the time.
By adding a fourth ambulance, the new model also recognizes the community's growing demand for medical response, even as major structure fires become increasingly rare.
According to Fire Department statistics, the number of fire incidents in Palo Alto and Stanford has declined by 32 percent since 2008, with residential structure fires decreasing by 82 percent over this period. A report from the Fire Department attributes this to "strong effective building codes, especially fire sprinklers, new construction practices that incorporate fire resistive materials and fire-safe appliances."
Medical calls, on the other hand, continue to rise. Ambulance transports have gone up by 52 percent since 2007, a trend that the department attributes to an aging population and the "expanded awareness of the 9-1-1 system." Palo Alto residents over 65 years old account for 50 percent of the ambulance transports to hospitals, despite making up only 17 percent of the population.
Nickel noted that under the new model, there will be no station closures and no layoffs. The department currently has 17 vacancies, he said.
But while Nickel called the service model "innovative," fire Capt. Ryan Stoddard, who heads the firefighters union, criticized it for depending too much on cross-staffing to achieve reductions. Even though the new plan adds a fourth ambulance – which everyone agrees is a good thing – two of the ambulances depend on cross-staffing, which could result in a personnel shortage when the city gets multiple calls for service at the same time.
"When we start cross-staffing, we're just rolling the dice, hoping we have the right unit at the right place at the right time, which becomes risky and unsafe," Stoddard said.
Stoddard disputed the idea that eliminating 11 positions will not impact response times, particularly as the number of calls for service continues to grow. Fire management had acknowledged in the past that the staffing levels are "appropriate" for the city. For union members, the idea of changing these levels based on a decision by Stanford to reduce its fees, did not seem like the wisest course of action.
"With 11 fewer FTEs (full-time equivalents), there's no way the service levels will remain the same," Stoddard said.
Stoddard said the union had presented its own ideas for achieving cost reductions, including eliminating one of the city's two deputy chief positions and some of the "floater" positions, which don't have assigned spots in the department but which are hired to fill in as needed. Those proposals, he said, were rejected.
Ultimately, the union did not agree to support the staffing reductions, though it acknowledged that the city has met its legal meet-and-confer requirements. Despite the challenges that they believe the service changes will present, he said firefighters are hoping that the new staffing model will work out well for the city.
"Any time you're asking people for doing more with less, that will take a hit on morale," Stoddard said. "We will still show up and run calls to the best of our ability because that's what firefighters do."
Nickel said that despite these anxieties, the department is committed to making the new model work. Innovation in a "very traditional career" can be very frightening, Nickel said, and can cause "a lot of discomfort and anxiety." But he said that the new proposal has prompted many Palo Alto firefighters to ask: "How are we going to make it work?"
Nickel also said that if the new service model doesn't work out as expected, he will work with the council to address any shortcomings.
"I have told the council that if we see service levels drop and our response time increasing, we will absolutely be coming back to the council to ask for assistance in mitigating that," Nickel said.