Above, Palo Alto firefighters a hiker who fell down a ravine off Los Trancos Trail in Palo Alto’s Foothills Park on Aug 11, 2016. Photo from Palo Alto Fire Department.
BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
Palo Alto City Council will soon consider cutting 11 fire department positions in a move that Fire Chief Eric Nickel called “innovative” and the department’s union head called “dangerous.”
The proposed cuts, made through attrition, not layoffs, would save the department $1.5 million annually in response to revenue losses from the Stanford fire contract, which totaled a $2 million hit for fiscal year 2017. After Stanford canceled its long-term con- tract with the city in 2015, the department has been providing protection on a series of short-term extensions at about 75% of the original contract terms.
Battalion Chief Ryan Stoddard, president of the International Association of Firefighters Union Local 1319, said the danger lies in increasing the department’s practice of “cross-staffing,” reducing the typical crew of three on a fire engine and two on an ambulance to a single three-person crew manning both. Each fire station typically has three to eight personnel during the day.
‘A gamble at some point’
Because three people can’t run both pieces of equipment at once, and both a fire engine and an ambulance are needed to respond to medical calls, firefighters will be spread thinner than they are now, he said.
“We think it’s very unsafe,” Stoddard said. “We’re already doing a lot more with a lot less equipment. It just becomes a gamble at some point.” But Nickel, a 25-year veteran of Cal Fire before being named Palo Alto chief in 2013, said he isn’t worried.
The department only juggles more than three simultaneous calls about 3% of the time, Nickel said, and 90% of the time, it responds to calls within eight minutes.
“If the system doesn’t perform like it’s supposed to, you’d better believe I will be asking City Council for more resources,” Nickel said.
The department would add a fourth ambulance and try to better tailor its staffing to volume of calls for service at each of its six stations (301 Alma St., 2675 Hanover St., 799 Embarcadero Road, 3600 Middlefield Road, 600 Arastradero Road and 711 Serra St., at Stanford). Council will consider the request to cut fire personnel at its Oct. 16 meeting.
Tens of thousands of Palo Alto employees live outside the city, so the area’s population is much larger during the day. The more people, the more emergencies, so the department can do with fewer firefighters at night, Nickel reasoned.
The 27-firefighter department is already one of the most economically run in the Bay Area, according to both Nickel and Stoddard.
“The city of Palo Alto is getting a fantastic value for the money that they invest,” Nickel said. “We do a very aggressive job to try to recover our costs.”
The department has made four hires recently, has 17 vacancies and is starting a fire academy later this month.