March 8, 2011 > Newark's Fire Department transition - did it succeed?
Newark's Fire Department transition - did it succeed?
An interview with former Newark Fire Chief Demetrious Shaffer
A major reorganization of fire services in Newark by consolidation with the Alameda County Fire Department (ACFD) was designed to create more efficient and less costly protection for residents and businesses. A lengthy study of the feasibility and viability of this change culminated in a recommendation by Newark Fire Chief Demetrious Shaffer to move forward with the process. Consolidation finalized May 1, 2010 and Chief Shaffer became a Deputy Fire Chief with ACFD. TCV recently spoke with Deputy Chief Shaffer about the transformation and impact of the merger.
TCV: What are the primary differences you have seen when comparing Newark Fire Department as a separate entity and the merged department with ACFD?
Shaffer: The first word that comes to mind is 'resources.' On the street level - engines, trucks, rescue - our ability to amass resources within a short period of time far overshadows what we could have done in the past. As a stand along agency, we could have called on those resources through mutual aid, but it takes longer. Now we are in the same dispatch center.
TCV: Are there any examples of this advantage that come to mind?
Shaffer: Within two weeks of consolidation, a call came in from an industrial location in Newark; a 4-alarm incident. We had necessary resources on site within 25 minutes. Each alarm involves three engines, a truck and a chief officer. As you reach this level of response, additional staff is involved including deputy chiefs and other specialized department members. As a separate fire department in Newark, we would be hard pressed to match the quick response, not because of the skill set required, but to match the necessary mechanisms to rapidly assemble resources. That is where 'the rubber meets the road' for the community.
The other part of resources is staff. It is interesting to see the merged model actually work. As Newark Fire, we had a limited staff although we were still charged with doing the same thing as any other fire department in the State, even large departments. All departments have to follow a plethora of regulations, unfunded mandates and training requirements that often change. My Assistant Chief in Newark was also the Disaster Preparedness Chief and Training Chief; one person wearing multiple hats plus filling in for me when necessary. I was wearing multiple 'hats' as well. At ACFD, we have a dedicated Training Chief to manage those responsibilities.
TCV: Has this change resulted in a cost savings for Newark?
Shaffer: It is so amazing to see all of this and at a lower cost. If someone in Newark has a need of our services, we probably have staff to handle it appropriately and in a timely manner. Before consolidation, we were doing those things but it was a struggle. The best part of this is that the City of Newark still has the same staff; they still have me, my Assistant Chief, Battalion Chiefs, the same people and knowledge base they had before. In addition, we now have additional Deputy Chiefs, Assistant Chiefs and Battalion Chiefs too. The amount of experience and knowledge Newark has gained is almost immeasurable.
TCV: Was there much change when Union City Fire Department joined ACFD?
Shaffer: It was significant. Union City Fire and Newark Fire consolidation represents about one third of the department. This has a 'cultural impact.' ACFD works to learn about the communities it serves and provide what they want and expect, not tell them what they are going to get.
TCV: Did ACFD change its focus when it consolidated with Newark and Union City?
Shaffer: ACFD is a true 'all risk' organization. The ability to handle urban/suburban incidents was already in place through work with contract cities such as Dublin and San Leandro as well as Lawrence Livermore and Berkeley Laboratories. We also handle all the unincorporated areas of the county which sounds rural and does include wild lands but also areas such as Castro Valley which has a lot buildings and residences. ACFD covers 504 square miles; 400 miles is rural.
TCV: Did the mergers provide advantages for Newark and Union City firefighters?
Shaffer: City firefighters are now able to participate in a different, all risk model including water rescues and other types of responsibilities. This is part of our regular training regimen.
TCV: How does ACFD handle incidents that border non ACFD cities such as Fremont and Hayward?
Shaffer: The relationship between Newark and Union City is now seamless since they both use the same fire department. The relationship with Fremont has not changed except they now deal with one fire department rather than two separate organizations. We border Fremont on multiple sides including Sunol and have a very good relationship, using the same dispatch center, the same radio frequency and direct communication. Our relationship with Hayward is excellent as well. They have their own dispatch center but they can, upon request, operate on our frequency - or vice versa - providing seamless communication.
TCV: Has communication with police simplified with consolidation?
Shaffer: This has remained pretty much the same with the exception of Newark where fire dispatch was in the same center as police. Dispatch for Newark fire services is now in the ACFD system. This is different but not worse. Newark police have the ability to 'see' all fire calls automatically. We are now working on a radio connection allowing them to hear us as well. Coordination between these departments is crucial to know where units are and where they are heading, especially when racing to a call with lights and sirens or responding to a call that requires both services.
TCV: Has the relationship with Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) changed?
Shaffer: We still oversee the CERT program and disaster preparedness but we have transitioned these teams to be a bit more self-sufficient. Many members of both Newark and Union City CERT have been doing this for a long time. These people are very qualified to teach, participate and do a lot of things for those communities. Our model is very supportive of what they would like to do. We just graduated 24 Newark CERT members in January and have another class coming up in April. Union City has similar CERT training going on. We operate from the national curriculum and encourage each community to use that system although they can be different. This is a holistic community approach to disaster preparedness.
TCV: Newark is vulnerable to isolation in the event of a major earthquake, has planning changed since consolidation?
Shaffer: No. This is a recognized scenario; equipment and supplies are located in Newark to meet challenges of this type until additional resources are available. A company called Cobalt Equipment responds to disasters with communication trailers, large tents, generators and other necessary equipment. A Cobalt stockpile is located in Newark at no cost to the City of Newark, Newark Unified School District or Cobalt. Therefore, in the event of a disaster, this materiel is already in Newark.
TCV: Is there anything you can think of that has been lost with the merger?
Shaffer: I can't think of anything that I would consider a loss, but it has been a big learning experience for me. From a small agency where communications between everyone, around 50 people, was relatively easy, I am now in a much larger organization of 400 people. It is a different model but because of the way ACFD is set up, it still has the feel of a smaller agency. I believe the reason is that ACFD is made up of smaller, consolidated fire departments. Everyone understands the value of personal and direct communication.
This change has been great for me, maybe more so than for others, since I was leading the Newark Fire Department and made the recommendation for consolidation. This was based on two and a half years of study and negotiation but some of it relies on faith that everything will work out. Until it is actually done, there is no way to know for sure. It is gratifying for me to see it work for Newark and Union City, both very independent and proud cities.
No matter how well I think it works, at the end of the day, it is about how well we respond when someone calls 9-1-1 and needs us. I think we have done this in a seamless manner that has produced excellent results. I get out to calls in Newark and Union City and follow up with the field crews. So far, the overwhelming response is positive, a high level of confidence due to enhanced resource support from training and administrative personnel.
TCV: Is there more opportunity for advancement for firefighters in a consolidated fire department?
Shaffer: Career development for firefighters has expanded. In a smaller agency, we have engine companies; everything else comes through mutual aid. Now, there is more opportunity for horizontal movement allowing specialty service in diverse areas such as heavy rescue, boat service, wild land rigs, etc. Firefighters can still choose to remain on one type of service if that is what they want, but there is now a choice. Vertical movement through ranks is enhanced as well since a larger organization has more management needs. Over a 30-year career, these opportunities can be invigorating.
TCV: Is there a cap to the growth of ACFD?
Shaffer: It is contingent on the leadership of this organization. The chief believes strongly in maintaining our presence as a local fire department ensuring that each community can choose how they want fire service to be provided to them. That is part of our culture and will continue. We are one of the smaller, larger agencies when compared to LA County, San Bernardino, Sacramento Metropolitan and Orange County. We have plenty of room to grow and still be successful. I don't know at what point we lose the small town feel of our organization but right now we can continue to grow and benefit both ACFD and communities within the county.
As long as the leadership follows a customizable model for the jurisdictions we cover, ACFD can continue its growth, become even more efficient and retain a small town feel. I believe this can be done. We have over 400 employees now and just completed a strategic business plan that allows continued growth in a smart way as a cutting edge department.
TCV: Has the consolidation followed the predicted economic model?
Shaffer: When the proposal for consolidation was crafted, the five year model included a budget for each year. We have met projections, including savings for the City of Newark, for the first year so far and are on track for the first two quarters of this year to be about 1.7 percent under budget projections. Economically, it is working very well.
With consolidation, we eliminated a lot of duplication that comes with multiple smaller agencies - fire chiefs, assistant fire chiefs, fire marshals, clerical staff, etc. Not only does this help economically, but from an efficiency standpoint too. An example of this is purchase of equipment. Since the need is similar in many locations, the work and time necessary - assembling a team, specifications, meetings with manufacturers, bids - for buying a fire engine is often duplicated in each jurisdiction. As one agency, a single team and economies of scale is much more efficient.
When considering consolidation, there must be a gain in operational and economic factors to move forward. Our model is becoming more popular because of the economy and we receive many calls asking for information. It is hard to say whether this is right for any other agency; it is dependent on the jurisdictions and many factors so needs to be studied carefully. Thorough study and objective analysis should yield an informed and hopefully correct choice. We did this in south county and, for us, it was the right thing to do.
TCV: Any closing comments?
Shaffer: I am really happy with the transition and expanded community services as a result. No matter where you live or what walk of life, everyone deserves excellent emergency response. Through this change, we are able to help the Newark community economically and gather resources so citizens receive comprehensive and high quality services. I was just one part of this decision that included fire department personnel, city staff, city council, ACFD and many others. This is an excellent example of the power of teamwork.