Their job title may evoke burning buildings and forest flames, but Palo Alto's newest firefighters are expected to be just as comfortable operating an ambulance as they would a fire engine.
The Palo Alto Fire Department is in the midst of a dramatic, multi-year overhaul that includes more staffing flexibility, greater resource sharing with the Police Department and, most dramatically, an expansion of its well-used ambulance service. The shift was prompted by a radical increase in medical calls, which now make up about 60 percent of total service calls, and by a recent report from two consulting firms, which issued 48 recommendations for improving department operations.
In response, the city hired six new paramedics and added a second full-time ambulance to its medical-response operation. Previously, the department had one full-time ambulance and another one that served for 12 hours a day and was staffed by firefighters working overtime.
The department's new focus on medical response is also reflected in the department's recent hiring decisions. Public Safety Director Dennis Burns, who oversees the city's police and fire departments, said the city has recently filled 17 firefighter vacancies in the department. Of the newly hired firefighters, 14 are also paramedics.
"That's a great thing to have," Burns told the City Council's Policy and Services Committee at a Tuesday night discussion of the recent changes in the department. "Ideally, what we'd like to have is a paramedic on every engine, every day. We think that will provide the best service to the community."
While the addition of a full-time ambulance required the department to add six paramedic positions, some of these costs are offset by the drastic decrease in overtime and the increasing revenues from the ambulance operation. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, Emergency Medical Services brought in about $866,000 in revenues, compared to $719,000 in 2012, $565,000 in 2011 and $431,000 in 2010. Overtime expenditures in the first quarter of 2013 were $525,077, compared to $1.1 million in the first quarter of 2012.
The department's new focus on firefighters with medical skills is part of a broader movement toward efficiency and flexibility. The city succeeded last year in eliminating the long-standing "minimum staffing" provision in the contract of its largest firefighter union. The clause required the city to have at least 29 firefighters on duty at all times and restricted the city's ability to reduce the department's historically high overtime costs.
The Fire Department is also sharing more resources with the Police Department. According to a report from the Fire Department, a total of six administrative and management employees are now "shared across both operations providing administrative, budget/finance and technical support." Burns referred to this merging of administrative functions as "nominal public-safety consolidation."
"That means the basic operations of police and fire stay in their silos, but we share the command staff and the support staff that provide the critical services to both departments. We don't have the duplication."
The recent changes in the department efforts have resulted in net savings of $1.3 million in the current fiscal year, compared to last year. A huge part of this sum (about $1 million) is attributed to the recent closure of Station 7, which had serviced the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park.
The numbers generally pleased committee members, though Councilman Larry Klein said he expected to see savings of about $2 million.
The Fire Department is also ramping up its data-gathering capabilities. It now uses a recently developed dashboard tool that allows staff to monitor every component of response time by shift, station and apparatus.
"Department management evaluates this information to determine the best way to deploy staffing resources and will use this to monitor any impact that flexible staffing and other operational changes may have on response times," the new report states.
The department's recent emphasis on data analysis and medical response is well embodied by its new leader. Eric Nickel, whom City Manager James Keene recently tapped to be Palo Alto's new fire chief, served as a paramedic for 10 years and had overseen the paramedic operation for the Novato Fire Protection District, where he served as deputy chief. He will officially take the helm of the Fire Department next month.
Nickel introduced himself to the committee Tuesday night and made it clear that he is comfortable with data. He said he comes from a business background and was planning to become a banker before choosing to become a firefighter instead. His business skills, he said, served him well in managing operations in Novato.
"I'm all about using data to drive decisions and really going to the next level of using data to predict risk and predict the need for services," Nickel said.
Committee members praised the department's recent initiatives, with Greg Schmid offering a "big word of encouragement" for the direction in which things are going. Committee Chair Karen Holman agreed.
"I appreciate the savings. Keep it coming," Holman said. "As well as the efficiencies."