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Should Davis spend millions of dollars on a ladder fire truck?

UC Davis Ladder Fire Truck no 34
UC Davis's Ladder Fire Truck - Truck 34

By Roberta Millstein

Is now the time for the City of Davis to be spending millions of dollars on a ladder fire truck when it currently only needs this type of truck approximately once per month at most, when it can currently borrow UC Davis’s ladder truck for free?

What information do we need to answer this question?  What do we know and what do we need to know?

According to the Davis Enterprise, on March 16 the Davis City Council “expressed unanimous support for acquiring a ladder truck for the Davis Fire Department and directed staff to move forward both on securing a detailed cost estimate for a truck as well as developing plans to modify the downtown fire station to accommodate it.”

The estimated costs discussed thus far are as follows (with the City possibly being able to obtain some grants to offset some of these costs):

  • For a truck with a 100-foot aerial ladder, related equipment and training, and a remodel of Station 31 – between $2.1 million and $2.4 million.
  • Ongoing annual costs for three to six additional firefighters to staff the truck between $645,000 and $1.26 million (a majority of the council favored three positions).

The article further states, “Currently the city relies on the UC Davis Fire Department when it needs a ladder truck — something that occurred 115 times during 2020 — and if that ladder truck is not available, seeks one from neighboring jurisdictions that also have them, including Woodland and West Sacramento.”  That amounts to roughly one request every three days, which at first glance might seem like a lot of usage.

However, not all of the calls that the City of Davis makes for the UCDFD ladder truck are for structure fires, and some calls are cancelled either on the way to the scene or upon arrival.

A response from the UC Davis Fire Department to a public records request (in accordance with the California Public Records Act) reports the following for the years 2010-2020:

  • The UCDFD ladder truck was dispatched to a reported structure fire in the City a total of 387 times – an average of only 35 times per year, or approximately one request every 10 days.

  • Of those 387 dispatches, the ladder truck remained on scene working only 141 times over the 11 year period – an average of approximately 8 times per year, or just slightly over once per month.

Note that the UCDFD does not track whether the nature of their work on scene is specific to the functionality of the UCD ladder truck itself; it only tracks the categories established by the US Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System.  These show that services offered by UCDFD to the City include a wide range of actions, some of which do not seem directly related to the functionality of the ladder truck, such salvaging and overhaul, providing manpower, and fire control and extinguishment.  It would be interesting to know how often the ladder was actually deployed when remaining on scene.  Perhaps the City tracks this information, along with the number of stories of the structures involved (i.e., did a significant percentage of the times that the ladder truck remained on scene occur at structures of three stories or fewer?).  I hope City staff provides both types of information to citizens and the City Council before the final decision about the purchase of the truck is made.

From the data provided by the UCDFD, it seems reasonable to infer that the City currently only needs a ladder fire truck approximately once per month at most.  Of course, needs may change in the future, but the question facing the City is whether it should be purchasing a ladder truck for Davis at this time.

Some might be concerned that UCDFD ladder truck would be frequently unavailable when needed, forcing the City of Davis to call on other jurisdictions.  Unfortunately, the UCDFD does not keep data on any refused requests.  However, they noted that, “We [the UCDFD] do not have any recorded incidents of campus structure fires within the requested data range where the ladder truck was not available to respond.”  The UCDFD response further states:

“The UC Davis Fire Department has a robust plan in place to maintain fire protection and emergency response capabilities to the campus. This plan includes routine and emergency maintenance planning, emergency staffing plans, personnel training, and vehicle share agreements with neighboring agencies in case of equipment failure. We are extremely successful in keeping our apparatus response ready and providing emergency response coverage to the campus. As part of long-standing mutual aid agreements, our resources are also made available to other areas within our region if needed. This service is returned to us in our time of need by those same agencies. We are proud of our relationships with our partnering agencies and greatly appreciate their support of the UC Davis campus.”

It is important to note that the City of Davis is not paying the UCDFD for any of these responses.  According to the UCDFD’s response, “UC Davis is signatory to the Yolo County Fire Services Mutual Aid agreement. Per this agreement, signatory agencies do not financially compensate other signatory agencies for emergency response aid rendered. Signatory agencies provide service as possible and appropriate to one another in time of need.”

In light of the information presented here, the Davis community needs to have an open and engaged discussion about whether it currently needs its own ladder fire truck or whether there are other City priorities that should take precedence, such as aiding community members and businesses in recovering from the challenges of the COVID pandemic.


Response to public records request: Download PRA - T34 UCD


Eileen Samitz

Thanks for explaining this issue. It was raised numerous times during the mega-dorm public hearings where the City would be bringing on this enormous cost with approving so many 5+ story mega-dorms which are exclusionary, luxury housing just for UCD students, and which do nothing to provide housing for our community's workforce and families.

Given that these high-density student housing projects in the City were approved, one way to avoid this enormous financial impact on the City would have been to negotiate with UCD during the MOU process to re-establish an agreement for use of UCD's ladder truck when needed. However, despite the concerns about this raised over and over, (particularly during the University Commons public hearings) these concerns were not addressed.

Roberta L. Millstein

Eileen, as I understand things, and as I tried to explain in my article, we already DO have an agreement with UCD that allows us to call on their ladder truck when needed -- and they have responded when we needed them. What the City could have done is to have high-rise developers contribute money to help defray future costs of purchasing a fire-truck -- in other words, to have those who are most directly benefiting from the new dwellings help defray the additional burden on the City.

Eileen Samitz


Thanks for the clarification since I was assuming that that agreement might be temporary, but sounds like that is not the case. So, yes, why is the City pursuing this enormous expense when there is an agreement that can continue to have the UCD fire truck if and when needed, particularly when it has only been needed about once a month? Thanks again for this informative article and the clarification.

Roberta L. Millstein

Sure, I’m glad it was helpful. My understanding is that the agreement is not temporary, and the response from UCDFD implies that as well, but if somebody else knows better I’m happy to be corrected.


I'm not sure why there haven't been bigger fires here that took more lives or affected more property. I'm curious if there are going to more problems in older - mostly shorter buildings - if e.g. electrical problems increase due to aging wiring and so on.

Though certainly nothing extra could be spent on fire and related emergency prevention, I'd be curious to see how prevention can help - e.g. inspections in relation to the above and even some help for low-income housing when things need repair. How much does it cost install standpipe systems into existing buildings?

On a more narrow level we should consider the need for narrower fire vehicles for our future hopefully-narrow streets (San Francisco did this) or perhaps even small drones that are in the air watching for fires. Perhaps these same drones could have multiple uses, such as looking for nuisance fires. It should be obvious to anyone that nuisance entertainment fires are a bigger health risk in sum than the occasional house fire (I realize that there have been some loses lately...)

That's a good segue into considering the FD as part of the larger solution of public health and safety: For 2.4 million every household in Davis could have a nice $100 HEPA air cleaner good for one room. Considering that many homes already have this or more, or other good systems for filtering wildfire smoke, all of these could be instead distributed so that there's two available for each household. These also help with motor vehicle exhaust and viruses. We can paint them red if necessary!

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