Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 20, 2013

Stanford is shopping for new firefighting services

University's request for proposals threatens long-standing relationship with Palo Alto

by Gennady Sheyner

Stanford University is looking around for a new provider of firefighting services, a move that could transform or even end the university's nearly four-decade-long relationship with the Palo Alto Fire Department.

The university put out a request for proposals in late November for an agency that would provide fire-department services, including firefighting, paramedic and "specialty-response," to its 4,000-acre property in unincorporated Santa Clara County. The campus includes roughly 700 university buildings and 965 single-family residences. The request has a deadline of Jan. 31, and Palo Alto expects to submit its proposal next month, city Fire Chief Eric Nickel told the Weekly.

Stanford's search could have significant repercussions for Palo Alto's fire department, whether or not the university agrees to continue to rely on Palo Alto's services. The two fire departments, Stanford's and Palo Alto's, merged in 1976 as part of an effort by the university to save money and update its force. The merger came in the wake of a 1972 fire that destroyed a wing of Encina Hall and drew about 250 responders from throughout the area.

The emergency-services partnership has been in place ever since. In addition to providing Stanford with emergency-dispatch and ambulance services, Palo Alto firefighters staff Station 6 on the university's campus. For that, the city is amply compensated. The Fire Department draws 30 percent of its revenues from Stanford University, though the campus draws only about 25 percent of the department's responses, Nickel said.

However, Stanford receives in return 30 percent of all of the revenues the department collects from customers, whether or not these calls pertain to the campus.

This long-standing but somewhat rudimentary formula will probably fall by the wayside with Stanford's decision. From the city's perspective, that might not be a bad thing. Nickel said his department, much like the university, would like to see changes in their agreement and noted that the request-for-proposals process will give both parties an avenue for addressing these changes.

Nickel said the department fully expected Stanford to shop around for other providers at some point and called the university's search a "great business practice." Specifically, Nickel said, the department would like to see more staffing flexibility and more provisions relating to fire prevention and inspections. For instance, the city currently monitors about 500 fire alarm systems at Stanford, Nickel said. Educating the campus community about ways to prevent false alarms would create a "huge opportunity to drop the call volume."

He also noted that the call volume from Stanford falls significantly during holiday periods, when students go home for vacation, and spikes during weekends, particularly when there is a big football game. It would be worthwhile to consider these factors in determining staffing levels, he said.

Both Stanford and Palo Alto acknowledge that the university's needs have changed since the partnership had begun. Most of the 1,248 calls that the Palo Alto Fire Department responded to on Stanford campus in 2012 related to medical services and false alarms. The request for proposals notes that Stanford "has not suffered from serious fires over many decades."

According to the request for proposals, Stanford is looking for an initial contract with a five-year term, with automatic five-year renewals thereafter for "acceptable performance." Cancellation of a contract would require at least a 12-month notice. The university is looking to approve the new contract by next April.

Even if other agencies submit the bids, Palo Alto would hold several key advantages. The most important is location. Because the city has several fire stations at and near Stanford, it is best positioned to meet Stanford's response-times requirements. The request for proposals specifies that for medical calls and small fires, the first unit of responders should arrive within 7 minutes from the receipt of the 911 call 90 percent of the time. Even though at least four personnel from the contracting agency would occupy Stanford's fire station, incidents that require additional staff would probably involve more driving and a longer response time.

The fact that the city already provides other emergency services to Stanford should also strengthen its negotiating position. If the university opts to switch to a different fire department, fire calls would still be dispatched to Palo Alto before being transferred to the new agency, lengthening the response time.

Stanford also made it clear in the request for proposals that it only desires to contract with "another full service, public fire department," which further constrains the potential applicant pool.

"I believe at the end of the day we will still be their fire department, but it's going to look very different," Nickel said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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