Palo Alto cuts Fire Department positions | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto cuts Fire Department positions

New model looks to address falling revenues, increased calls for ambulance service

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.


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28 people like this
Posted by Sea Seelam Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 17, 2017 at 4:23 am

Sea Seelam Reddy is a registered user.

It is a big mistake to take this money and reduce 11 fire fighters.

I do not agree with the decision.


20 people like this
Posted by Citizen of Menlo Park
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 17, 2017 at 8:42 am

Great,now Menlo Park Fire and other surrounding agencies will have to pick up their calls for service. Thanks cheap and non-responsive Palo Alto City Council. All surrounding agencies should stand together and stop mutual aid period...

21 people like this
Posted by Neva Yarkin
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 17, 2017 at 10:46 am

I spoke last night at city council against firefighter reductions. I feel strongly that if there is a MAJOR DISASTER we will all be at a loss.
If Stanford gets approval for there new major construction maybe they can pay this forward, by supporting extra firefighters.

16 people like this
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2017 at 11:52 am

Of course they did. Nothing like power to disconnect from reality.

Who needs fire fighters when the Bay Area is reduced to ashes with new fires springing up daily?

Remember money management and responsibility?

14 people like this
Posted by Cur Mudgeon
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 17, 2017 at 11:52 am

Just great. As a resident of a highly flammable Eichler neighborhood, I am appalled at the idiocy of our council. Have we learned NOTHING in the last week? Coffey Park wasn't supposed to burn, but it did. Just this morning, we hear of a house fire in Boulder Creek starting a wildlands fire. I'll have to stock up on hoses and extinguishers.

29 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 17, 2017 at 12:17 pm

Annette is a registered user.

"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."

What in the world is that supposed to mean? Is the sincerity or seriousness of a person's position on a matter determined by attendance at CC? I can think of lots of good reasons why a firefighter might not be at 550 Hamilton Ave on a Monday night. Especially this week.

Not being in attendance does not equate to support of a controversial issue that is up for a vote. Residents should take note that Mayor Scharff apparently thinks it does. Wow.

4 people like this
Posted by Allen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 17, 2017 at 12:41 pm

There is just so much left out of this article. With the worst fire disaster in California history, it seems like an "interesting" time to reduce fire staff. But is a good thing or a bad thing? Can't tell from this article. Here are my issues with the article;
1) Stanford wants to pay less. Are they putting up more of their own resources that might mean the combined Stanford Palo Alto fire capability is higher? Maybe yes, maybe no. Can't tell.
2) The daughter of a friend is a parametric. Many fire departments are training firefighters as paramedics so they don't need dedicated paramedics. Clearly that is what we are doing. Leaving aside the possibility of needing both paramedics and firefighters at the same time, the issue raised by the union, are there more or less firefighters in the new plan? Can't tell from the article. There are less total fire plus paramedics but with dedicated paramedics being zero on the new plan, how many fire fighters are we left with? Can't tell.

14 people like this
Posted by Bill Ross
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 17, 2017 at 1:08 pm

It is remarkable that agreement with the Firefighters takes precedence over what is in the best interests of the residents, businesses and property owners of the City.

As raised by Mr. Balin how can there be an response by the City to the Stanford GUP DEIR in the area of public services (fire and emergency services) with this "innovative staffing model"? Stated plainly where is the additional staffing needed to operate a ladder truck going to come from for calls for assistance from high rise development?

The decision was also made without relation to the adoption earlier of the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan which indicates that mitigation of the wildland fire risk will come from the Fire Department without any mention of this reduced staffing model. Who is fooling who?

Left unanswered by the Chief and Council was the question of what if there are multiple requests for assistance and those who would furnish mutual aid are also involved?

7 people like this
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2017 at 1:55 pm

Reducing by 1 body during the day and 3 bodies at night is misleading. With additional cross staffing there will be multiple engines gone throughout the day running ambulance calls while leaving a station empty. It is really sad how the city council voted unanimously in favor of this and this new model
Does not seem sustainable long term.

15 people like this
Posted by Cut More
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 17, 2017 at 2:25 pm

The city needs to continue to cut firefighter positions. We hardly have any fires these days and one or two stations would be more than enough for our fire fighting needs. The job that the "firefighters' are trying to morph themselves into - is to be massively overpaid and over compensated EMTs and ambulance drivers.

The city should move to outsource all EMT and ambulance services given the massive and growing unfunded pension liabilities that are given to "firefighters" [portion removed.]

Please continue to cut these positions and outsource to save some money so the city can have animal shelters and community pools and clean streets, and not just over-compensated people who [portion removed] retire early.

7 people like this
Posted by Right wing style
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2017 at 2:43 pm

"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"

The right wing has taken to making remarks about the size of the audience (like their leader in DC?) and to use that as an excuse to support developers. I have heard this sentiment also expressed by Susan Monk (worked for Kniss and uses her style) on the Planning Commission, also by Rosenblum (aka Mr Palantir).
Yes, the right wing is organized.

2 people like this
Posted by Cynthia Chu
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 17, 2017 at 5:50 pm

I thought the city supported the green initiative? I thought saving the environment meant something to the council? Not a single council member last night inquired how this new deployment would affect our carbon footprint. In speaking with the local fire station paramedic emt people this afternoon downtown, they told me that "cross-staffing means they will be driving fire engines and ambulances in "tandem" together everywhere.

When they are out in public, training, performing building inspections, etc, the extra ambulances will now be driven by the third person on the crew, everywhere they go. He explained this is because they can take either vehicle to a call, a fire engine OR and ambulance, but they have to find a place to park the vehicle and then move over all their gear to the truck that they are using to respond in. They must leave the unattended fire vehicle for a few hours until they complete the call and come back to retrieve it. Won't that take time to do? I would think that would cause a significant delay in responding to a call by having to find a place to park a fire engine,especially with such limited parking throughout the city.

Can someone explain how driving double the amount of fire vehicles per crew is helping the environment? Extra diesel fuel being burned every day, more tires worn out, probably more wear and tear on vehicles, but most importantly, a larger carbon footprint. How is that helping our community?

16 people like this
Posted by Just doing their job
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 17, 2017 at 6:29 pm

When you have million and half dollars taken from your budget, you find the funds other ways or you cut back on employees. The city council and fire chief are just doing what you hired or elected them to do. It's a tough call.
I don't put much thought in what the fire union has to say.

3 people like this
Posted by Justin
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 17, 2017 at 8:48 pm

[Portion removed.] Anyone who has ever sacrificed their life for another being (firefighter, ems, police, military), would know that cutting one or three or eleven positions from your local fire service could have devastating effects. "Over compensate", really, I bet you've never had the misfortune of having to pick up the phone and dial 911 in hopes of having the most amount of amazing, skilled, qualified people by your side and wishing they were there in a matter of a few seconds. [Portion removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by brass tax
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 19, 2017 at 12:48 am

Here is the laymens version of this article... Understand fire and police are a city's insurance policy against calamity. That being said, how much insurance do you require?

Here is a scenario....

If 3 simultaneous medical calls occur, (happens more often than you think) this is the result...

Station 1 is gone on a call (e61 and medic 61)
Station 2 (cross staff ambulance) and station 3 gone
station 4 (cross staff ambulance) and station 5 gone

what is left is station 6 (truck, engine and ambulance)

if this occurrs after 8pm then station 6 ambulance is dispatched leaving only a truck and engine

bear in mind a full medical call lasts 45 minutes for an engine and 90 for an ambulance.

Palo much insurance do you require?

in the last 10 years the call volume has doubled from 5000/year to 10,000/year

staffing has decreased from 31 to 26/24. this work environment leads to a stepping stone department and increased injuries. be prepared to end up spending more in the long run as the money to train new ff's goes bye bye when they leave and overtime skyrockets as fatigued bodies break.

I have spoken, heed the warning!

2 people like this
Posted by Just doing their job
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Oct 19, 2017 at 4:25 pm

@brass tax
You can do "what if" scenarios all day long. The fire budget is a million and half dollars smaller. Either find the money in other funds or cut employees. It's a tought call, but the fire chief and city council are doing their job. Doing what they were hired or elected to do. You can't fault them.

1 person likes this
Posted by Lies
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 20, 2017 at 12:46 pm

And that is totally fine but they are lying to the public about keeping the same level of service. Service and response times will drop. Stations will be browned out due to being on ambulance calls. Cutting is fine but don’t lie about it.

Like this comment
Posted by Joey Z
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 22, 2017 at 1:32 pm

Ha, maybe they’ll have to work harder. Tiny violins......

Like this comment
Posted by Sad
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 22, 2017 at 10:33 pm

This sounds like a truly horrible decision. Please don't cut.

Like this comment
Posted by Dr. G
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 23, 2017 at 10:34 am

Please read the informative response that a retired PAFD firefighter wrote in the first article that came out on Oct. 6.

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