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

This article was originally posted on 5/16/21. It is being reposted today because the City Council will be considering this item at its meeting tomorrow, 1/11/22. The anticipated one-time capital purchase expense for the fire apparatus and associated equipment is approximately $2.15 million.

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


Donna Lemongello

I find the ongoing annual costs even more significant than the initial outlay. Where do they think they will find this kind of extra money year after year? There are so many unmet or strained needs already and clearly this need in emergencies is already accounted for.

Nancy Price

Thanks for reposting your article, Roberta. Good information to have now that the issue is coming up again on 1/11/2022.

Roberta L. Millstein

Nancy, thank you for the subtle reminder to fix the date from 2021 to 2022 (which I have now done). No wonder I was having trouble reposting it -- I guess I'm not yet adjusted to the new year. :-)

Todd Edelman

Woah, consider what these millions could do for fire prevention and immediate control at source... in rental accommodations.

Existing rentals in Davis have no requirement for anything but smoke detectors. I don't even think that there's a requirement for carbon monoxide detectors. There's no requirement for in-unit fire extinguishers, fire blankets used to smother e.g. small kitchen fires... or to go a wee bit further strategically, automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and similar devices. (To be clear and fair, several rentals I've lived in in Davis have equipment beyond what's required, which I truly appreciate it.)

Though perhaps it's too holistic to focus on related matters such as air hygiene equity for rental accommodations - filtration and other systems to address the several times per week to nearly-consistent unhealthy air quality in housing, it would seem to make sense to do a study to see how many lives can be saved and improved and much property destruction can be avoided by comparing the ladder truck purchase to the other solutions I mention. Call it an Emergency Equity Study, and get the Finance and Social Service Commissions to work on it, stat.

An AED costs $500 and could be split by a number of apartment units, or one per rental house. It would be about $150 to equip units with fire extinguishers, fire blankets and CO detectors, depending on size. So let's say the average per rental home is $300, aside from installation (e.g. mounting them on walls). For $2.1 million just over 7,000 rental homes could be equipped, and then the e.g. $645k would equip another 2,000 rentals her year.

I am not naive - only radical - and I know that the Holy Davis Non-Transparent Landlord Industrial Complex will likely not - in any majority of their properties - spring for the mentioned items on their own initiative, and it's unclear if they'd pay for the installation labor if the City did pay for them. So if the City pays for it, that's fine, even if the rentals are newly-marketed with a Safety Equity angle. The point here is to say lives, and secondarily to preserve property. I want to see a video on Davis Media Access of the Mayor putting out a kitchen fire with a fire blanket, using a AED or a fire extinguisher.

Alan Pryor

The City is planning on raiding their American Rescue Plan funds from the federal government to finance this boondoggle project even though those monies were supposed to be used only to reverse adverse impacts of the pandemic.

Plus, according to the Staff report for tomorrow night's Council meeting (see http://documents.cityofdavis.org/Media/Default/Documents/PDF/CityCouncil/CouncilMeetings/Agendas/2022/2022-01-11/07B-Indigo-Sole-Source-Ladder-Truck-Improvements-FS-31.pdf), they are also bringing back the pork-barrel firehouse kichen upgrade to the fire station claiming they can do it cheaper if done with the other modifications done to the fire station they need to do to accommodate the larger ladder truck. Hmmm...is that so?

Well since the proposed costs for the remodeled kitchen have now ballooned up to $414,000 from $250,000 it was supposed to cost when this whole nonsensical idea was first floated, I can only wonder what the standalone cost of the kitchen remodel would be if we didn't buy into this multi-million dollar boondoggle ladder truck project.

Hey, wait a minute. I just had a great idea...let's kill the kitchen remodel project and just but the fire department a whole new house instead!

This Council has turned into the most spend-crazy Council we have ever seen in Davis. And they actually have the chutzpah to throw around this pile of money while they are claiming they are "laser-focused on fiscal responsibility and cost-containment."

What are they smoking down at City Hall?

Todd Edelman

Thanks, Alan.

Well, ARP funding could be used for the holistic home hygiene practices that mitigate smoke particles as well as any virus, but probably not for the the fire safety stuff I suggest... and clearly not the ladder truck and so on.

A study on the financing and effectiveness of emergency safety benefits is still warranted.

Roberta L. Millstein

I think you're right, Todd. I think your suggestions would do more to improve public safety, especially for lower income folks, then a new ladder truck would.

Eileen Samitz

Thanks Roberta, for this excellent article which reveals yet another astonishing debacle by the City, that could have and should have been avoided.

The issue of the City bringing on the potential expense for a ladder truck and staffing it and maintenance was raised multiple time if the City Council approved, they approved the 4-7 story mega-dorms in the City as opposed to pushing back harder on UCD to build the housing on campus. But the Council did it anyway. This issue should have been on the forefront of the discussions about the mega-dorms before they were approved. But, of course this issue, although brought up repeatedly by the community, was ignored at the time by the City and the Council.

So now the City resident are just finding out about the hefty long-term price tag, and other consequences, of the City's generosity to UCD of approving over 5,000 student beds in the City instead of pushing back on UCD to build this student housing on campus. UCD has over 5,300 acres and a 900-acre campus, yet the City Council pushed through all of these student housing units on the City and the expensed to the Davis residents that go with them like this debacle.

Another failure of the City was not determining if the City would get RHNA fair share credit for these group housing apartments. Of course, they found out AFTER approving them that SACOG and HCD does not want to even give the City RHNA fair share credit for them. What a disaster this is for our community, which again, could have, and should have been avoided.

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