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