Sep 14 2012

OPINION: Fire Department Costs Out of Line

Comparison to other cities indicates high Piedmont costs –

Backers of Measure Y try to scare voters into supporting the parcel tax by claiming that loss of the tax threatens critical public safety services, especially the fire department. So it’s worth asking the question, “How do Piedmont fire department staffing and costs compare with similar small, affluentcities?” Not favorably, is the short answer.

In its report to the Council last year, MTRC prepared summary budget comparisons with several cities. We have updated the information to currently available budgets. For fire protection, the comparable cities (those with their own fire departments, not consolidated with other jurisdictions) were Larkspur, Mill Valley, San Marino, Sausalito and Albany (fire chief shared with Piedmont).

Piedmont’s population is 10,667, compared to an average of 12,622 for the other cities. The most striking comparisons between our fire department and those of the other cities are as follows:

To summarize the links between the different bits of data, Piedmont is almost 20% smaller than the average of the other cities, yet its fire department has 26% more staff. As a result, fire protection in Piedmont costs 53% more per dwelling than the average, and the ratio of houses protected to fire department employees in Piedmont is only half of the other cities. The surplus cost for fire protection in Piedmont is nearly equal to the amount of revenue raised by the parcel tax.

The fire department in Piedmont has two central functions: fire fighting and ambulance/paramedic services. The ambulance portion of the budget is about a quarter of the cost of each shift, and responding quickly to paramedic calls is one of the city’s highest priority services. However, in a city that experiences, on average, about one house fire per year, it is reasonable to question the premium paid for our overall fire department size.

The city of Albany, with whom we share a fire chief, has almost twice Piedmont’s population and number of dwellings, and a larger area. Yet its fire budget is 15% less than Piedmont’s and the personnel count on a regular fire shift is 25% smaller. The comparisons are striking and deserve detailed examination by our City Council.

For more information on the parcel tax issue, go to

Michael Rancer, Chair of Piedmont’s 2011 Municipal Tax Review Committee

Editors Note:  The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.

One Response to “OPINION: Fire Department Costs Out of Line”

  1. More cities are using “live-in,” or “Resident firefighters,” which reduce staffing costs while maintaining service levels. The live-ins are usually college students, but many communities also accept employed people. The live-ins receive free lodging in return for serving as firefighters and EMT’s. It is a big incentive for college students because they can graduate with less – and sometimes no – debt. Check out to see the various ways the live-in firefighters serve. I also dicsuss the concept at

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