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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Vanguard Analysis: Davis Fire Has High Cost Per Service Call

One of the big questions facing the Davis Fire Department is the issue of staffing and the issue of whether or not the fire department needs a fourth fire station. Data presented by the Davis Fire Department has often shown that Davis has a relatively low number of fire fighters per thousand people, a high population per station, and a low cost per capita.

The Vanguard's analysis largely confirms those findings that would seem to suggest that davis is in need of more fire staffing, an additional fire station, and that it is run relatively cost effective.

However, the Vanguard moves beyond that statistical analysis and analyzes these measures looking number of service calls as the key variable rather than population. Using the metric of service calls, we find Davis consistently inefficient. Davis ranks at the bottom in total service calls per year over the four year period, at the bottom in calls per 1000, in the middle of calls per fire station, and fourth to last in the staffing ratio for service calls.

The key finding here is that when you look the cost per call for the city of Davis is it the fourth most expensive of the 12 sample cities at just under $2100 per service call. It ranks below Palo Alto, Folsom and Roseville. And just above the city of Berkeley and the city of San Luis Obispo. However, even that is not the complete picture.

Davis provides Basic Life Support (BLS) and requires firefighters to be EMT's. However, the highlighted cities provide Advanced Life Support (ALS). That means that in addition to fire and EMT services, they also provide ambulance transport which requires Paramedics. In other words, they are providing far more service with their expenditures than Davis does. Whereas Davis has to outsource ambulance services for an additional expenditure.

Looking at it that way, Davis provides the highest cost per service call of any city only providing fire and BLS.

The key for these data is the low volume of service calls overall and the low volume of service calls per 1000 residents. Davis is at the very bottom in terms of number of service calls and far on the bottom in terms of number of service calls per 1000 residents.

On the other hand in terms of calls per station, Davis ranks in the middle at seventh which probably suggests that its current number of stations is about right. Adding to that fact is the fact Davis is the smallest of these cities in terms of square miles (not shown) at 9.9 square miles. It is also second in population density to Berkeley which has 101,000 residents for its 10.5 square miles as opposed to Davis' 63,000 residents for its 9.9 square miles. Thus the physical area of Davis is the smallest and its population heavily concentrated.

This is important to understand because in terms of population per fire station Davis ranks only behind Vacaville and just ahead of Fairfield in terms of the number of people each fire station has to serve on average. Davis also has the second fewest fire fighters per thousand residents, this time just ahead of Fairfield and just behind Napa and Vacaville.

As was mentioned earlier, Davis also ranks second to last in terms of cost per capital. Davis spends just under $144 per person on fire services, that ranks well ahead of Fairfield's $112.50 which was the lowest cost per resident. Davis ranks just behind Napa which was at $147.66.

These statistics are generally used to support additional fire personnel and a fourth fire station. However, they appear to be mitigated by actual need in terms of number of service of calls.

So while Davis ranked 9th in actual overall spending on fire services, again accounting for the fact that five of the municipalities use their fire budget to provide ambulance and paramedic services as well, Davis ranks fourth in that cost per service call.

Davis needs to evaluate its staffing needs based on a full array of statistical measures. As the city moves into a cost saving mode, there are a number of issues it needs to weigh in terms of staffing of the fire department.

The first question is the one that the Vanguard has touched on the most and that is salary of the individual fire fighter in addition to their their overtime, total compensation, and perhaps most importantly their pension plan that will pay them 3% at 50 for every year of service they have provide pro rated to their ending salary.

The second issue is it needs to evaluate its staffing needs. Davis unlike a lot of other cities uses a four person unit. If the city were getting a high number of fire calls, a four person unit might be preferrable, but the call volume and the ratio of fire calls to other emergency calls suggest that this is not the case. Therefore the city might want to look into other staffing configurations that will allow the department to continue to serve the public at the highest possible level while conserving the costs.

Along the same lines, the city might evaluate whether every fire station needs to send out all of its equipment for every call. This is done in case of multiple calls but the result is a loss of efficiency and cost effectiveness. Again, we do not pretend to know the answers here, only pose the questions of things the city can explore to reduce cost.

Finally the issue of the fourth fire station arises. The fire department has long maintained that response time dictates a fourth fire station. The fourth fire station would add construction and maintenance costs, but also staffing costs.

Our analysis calls the need for the fourth fire station, or at least a full fourth fire station into question. The number of calls, the overall staffing, and the population density all point to the need to maintain current levels of staffing at best. A full fourth fire station with equivalent staffing looks like a great waste of resources according to this model.

That is not to completely rule out a fourth fire station. However, the city will need to develop an alternative model for it. A fully staffed fourth fire station, would greatly add to the cost per call. Resident surveys already indicate a high satisfaction rate. So the question is really what is the safety bang for the buck by adding another four person team on call at all times, which would raise the cost by another third.

The city might be better off developing some sort of alternative staffing model or a hybrid model if it believes there needs to be a greater spread throughout the city geographically. However given the compactness of the city, that is not altogether clear. Moreover, given the relatively low call volume Davis receives, the need for additional resources do not seem pressing or justified.

Davis needs to get its fiscal house in order overall. Right now, the city's fiscal situation is not in crisis mode but there are problems on the horizon if the city fails to contain costs. Fire staffing and salaries would seem to be one area that the city needs to look into in order to do so.

---David M. Greenwald reporting