Calif. Fire Dept. Cuts 11 Vacant Firefighter Jobs to Save Money


Calif. Fire Dept. Cuts 11 Vacant Firefighter Jobs to Save Money

News Oct 20, 2017

Oct. 19--The Palo Alto Fire Department will lose 11 positions—one-tenth of its full-time staff—under a restructuring plan designed to solve a budget shortfall.

On Monday night, the City Council unanimously approved the plan, which will cut seven firefighters and four apparatus operator positions, all 11 of which are vacant.

The department will shift personnel from slower stations to busier ones, and from slower times of day to busier times, reducing daytime staffing from 27 firefighters to 26 and cutting nighttime staffing by three.

The new deployment schedule, to be implemented by January, relies on "cross-staffing"—using firefighters to staff ambulances.

"A crew of three people, instead of being responsible for just one piece of equipment, a fire engine, is now responsible for two pieces of equipment, a fire engine and an ambulance," Palo Alto Fire Chief Eric Nickel told The Daily News in a phone interview Monday. "Depending on what the call is, the crew jumps into the appropriate piece of apparatus."

Cross-staffing and dedicating personnel to busier times of the day is an innovative approach, Nickel said.

"The goal is try to maintain the same level of service while saving money and still meeting our performance responsibilities to the community," the chief said. "And the other objective we set with this is to try to balance the work load out. We have some stations that are very busy, and some stations that are very slow. In fact, some crews spend less than an hour on emergency calls."

The move was deemed necessary because of revenue lost when Stanford reduced its emergency services contract with the city. The university closed a little-used fire station at the SLAC laboratory in 2012, later contracting with Menlo Park Fire for coverage in that area, and began negotiations with Palo Alto Fire for a reduced contract to cover the remaining fire station in the center of campus.

The reworked Stanford contract left Palo Alto Fire between $1.5 million and $2 million short in its annual budget, which totals around $31 million, Nickel said. About 85 percent of that is personnel costs.

Cross-staffing will allow staffing for a fourth ambulance unit, avoid layoffs, keep all six of the city's stations open 24 hours a day and still provide the same level of response time, according to a news release from the city. Nickel said the department's goal is to reach at least 90 percent of all calls within 8 minutes, and it has been doing that at a rate between 92 and 98 percent.

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There will be no layoffs because Nickel held off on filling those 11 openings while the Stanford situation played out. With four new hires that began Monday, Palo Alto Fire has a staff of 98 after previously being approved for 109.5.

Might losing 11 positions affect response time?

"Not the way we have designed the system, with the cross-staffing," Nickel said. "We still have the same number of apparatus on duty during the day, during the busiest time, and we have one less available apparatus at night, when we're the slowest."

Nickel said the department's average response time to Code 3 emergencies (those requiring lights and sirens) is around 5.5 to 6 minutes. What if the staff cuts result in a lower level of performance?

"Then we will be back, going to the city manager, to the City Council, saying we need more assistance," Nickel said.

The city provides most of the department's budget through its General Fund. The fire department also gets revenue from its contract with Stanford and through ambulance transport reimbursements, Nickel said.

Part of the motivation behind the new scheduling came from the trend in emergency services: There are fewer fire calls these days and many more calls for medical emergencies. The new model will deploy 26 firefighters, EMTs and paramedics from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., when two-thirds of those service calls occur, and 24 at night.

"We not only had to find a way to save $1.5 million, but we needed a more efficient way to deploy our personnel in response to the shifts in when our services are needed the most," Nickel said in the city's news release. "Our daytime population nearly doubles every day, and when we analyzed when our call volume is the highest, it made sense to shift personnel to be available during those times."

Only 17 percent of Palo Altans are age 65 or older, but they make up half of all ambulance transports to hospitals, Nickel said. Department data shows that while the population has been aging, resulting in a 50 percent increase in ambulance transports over the past decade, fire incidents are down by one-third in that same time.

The department's budget problems might not end here. The contract with the firefighters union is up next summer, and it has a large unfunded pension liability that Nickel says has grown by several million dollars a year over the past few years.

"So, we have to find a way to be as efficient as we can, while still maintaining our service levels," he said.

One area where efficiency might be improved: False alarms at local businesses. The department answers around 9,000 emergency calls a year, Nickel said, and around 1,300 of those are false alarms.

"We have far too many false alarms," the chief said. "That ties up our resources for unnecessary reasons. So we'll be going to the business community, saying you have to get your false alarm issues under control, or we'll start billing you for those responses."

Palo Alto Daily News, Calif.
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