In a bid to save money and address changing community demands, the Palo Alto City Council voted early Tuesday to eliminate 11 positions in the Fire Department -- a move that drew staunch opposition from the firefighters' union and concerns from some local residents.
The shift, which is expected to save the city $1.5 million annually, was triggered by the ongoing impasse between City Hall and Stanford University over a new fire-services contract. The partnership, which goes back to 1976, has been in flux since 2013, when Stanford announced its plan to terminate the agreement. While the city continues to provide fire services to Stanford, it is doing so under an agreement that reduces the university's payments by about $2 million -- or 25 percent -- over prior levels.
Given the new fiscal reality, Fire Chief Eric Nickel proposed a deployment model that reduces daytime staffing by one position and nighttime staff by three positions. Thus, instead of 27 firefighters being on duty at all times, there will now be 26 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. -- the hours during which the department receives two-thirds of its calls for services -- and 24 firefighters will be deployed after 8 p.m., when the demand is lowest.
A report from Nickel notes that the new service model "ensures that all fire stations remain open and staffed 24 hours per day, is expected to perform as well as the old model, and results in no layoffs as PAFD currently has 15 vacancies."
The new model also acknowledges the growing volume of medical calls by adding a fourth ambulance to the existing fleet of three. To reconcile the staffing cuts with the growing medical operation, the department will be relying more on "cross-staffing," where a three-person crew of firefighters is charged with staffing different emergency vehicles.
Three of the four ambulances in the new proposal rely on cross-staffing. Currently, the city has two ambulances with dedicated staff and one that relies on cross-staffing.
The council voted unanimously to approve the changes early Tuesday morning, with Vice Mayor Liz Kniss praising the new cross-staffing model.
"I know we have talked for a number of years about how you can deploy your firefighters in a different fashion such that we will have the same coverage and not use as many firefighters," Kniss said.
Her colleagues agreed. Councilman Eric Filseth observed that even with the staffing reduction, the department's costs continue to rise --- largely as a result of growing pension and benefit expenses. The former model, he said, is no longer financially sustainable.
"If we are to preserve our services in general, we need to find a way to deliver them more efficiently," Filseth said.
The council adopted the new staffing model despite opposition from the firefighters union, International Association of Firefighters, Local 1319. Fire Capt. Ryan Stoddard, union president, told the Weekly earlier this month that union members are concerned about the new model's over-reliance on cross-staffing, which could pose significant challenges in instances when there are multiple emergency calls occurring at once.
"With 11 fewer FTEs (full-time equivalents), there's no way the service levels will remain the same," Stoddard said.
College Terrace resident Fred Balin also voiced concerns about the change. The new model he said, "rests on a premise that financial obligations that impact all city departments should be disproportionately addressed in -- of all places -- public safety."
The council, for its part, felt comfortable with Nickel's analysis. Councilman Cory Wolbach said he is willing to support the new staffing model, provided that fire officials are keeping an eye on its impacts and are willing to make further modifications, as needed.
Mayor Greg Scharff said he was heartened by the fact that none of the firefighters who opposed the staffing changes attended the public hearing -- which began at about 11:30 p.m. Monday -- to voice their opposition.
"More efficient use of resources is very helpful for us," Scharff said.