WatchSonoma Watch

Officials: Rural fire response falls short



Six of Sonoma County’s 15 volunteer fire departments fall short of a national standard for emergency response times because of their remote areas, struggles to

Bodega Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ron Albini, center, gets his staff organized for safety testing in 2008. (PD FILE, 2008)

retain volunteers and other factors, county fire officials said.

For rural fire agencies, the standard calls for a response time of 15 minutes or less 80 percent of the time.

Of the six departments failing to achieve that over the past four years, four met the standard a third to more than half of the time.

Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Aston said he is not surprised at the findings, contained in a report being considered today by the Board of Supervisors.

Overall, the county’s fire division, which oversees the volunteer departments and provides coverage for 680 square miles of the unincorporated area, met the 15-minute standard nearly 84 percent of the time, Aston noted. Nine departments met or exceeded the standard in their response to fires, rescues, medical calls and other emergencies.

“I think the level of service is appropriate,” Aston said.

The slowest average response times were by departments in Annapolis, Fort Ross, Knights Valley and Mayacamas, which cover some of the most remote parts of the county.

Firefighters assigned to such stations often need 10 minutes just to get to their post, grab their gear and respond to the emergency, Aston said. From there, longer travel distances and narrow roads can add to the delays, he said.

Improving response times will take more manpower and money, the report from Aston’s department concluded, giving a list of recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.

The main suggestion is for the board to adopt the national response time and other coverage benchmarks as a way to measure and guide investment in the county’s fire service.

Supervisor Mike McGuire called that move a “critical” step in a three-year planning process aimed at modernizing the fire division.

“Providing public safety, including fire and emergency services, is one of the main pillars of local government,” he said. “These conclusions show us where we can improve.”

The other two volunteer departments falling short of the national standards were Mountain and Lakeville. Two others, Sotoyome and Sea Ranch, were within half a percentage point below the 80 percent benchmark and were judged by officials as meeting the standard. The departments that met or exceeded the standard were Bloomfield, Bodega, Camp Meeker, San Antonio, Two Rock, Valley Ford and Wilmar.

A volunteer shortage has plagued a number of the departments, especially those in remote areas. Where the ideal staffing is 300 volunteers across the county, the current tally is 230.

Keeping those firefighters trained to current mandates is costly and time-consuming, Aston said.

The county also is in need of at least two replacement fire stations, in San Antonio and Two Rock.

To address those challenges and others, the report called for increased county spending on fire protection.

The county department’s $3.9 million operating budget is drawn almost entirely from property taxes but gets no additional support from the county general fund, the main pot of discretionary money supporting public safety programs. As a result, volunteer firefighters have been forced to do fundraisers to cover fuel costs and utility bills for their departments, Aston said.

Other expenses, including vehicle maintenance and replacement, have been deferred or covered through grants.

“We’re not doing some of the stuff we should be doing,” Aston said.

He plans to ask supervisors for general fund money next budget year, a request that will put him in line with law enforcement, road maintenance and many other county services.

He did not say how much he wanted, saying he did not want to tie the board’s discussion about coverage standards to “a price tag.”

McGuire said he was willing to discuss increased spending on fire protection. He noted the board in June allocated $1 million toward new, basic fire stations in Annapolis and Lakeville and completion of one in Bodega.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

4 Responses to “Officials: Rural fire response falls short”

  1. Where's the Fire says:

    How many fires do we have a year? Why do firefighters respond to paramedic calls? Somone should look at how and why rather than how much more do we need. The Supes won’t ask those questions, they will just write a check and consider it a necessary re-election expense.

  2. James Bennett says:

    Expect to see ongoing propaganda and reasons why services can’t be continued in country rural areas.
    Post offices, school buses, bridges, fire, road maintanance, etc..
    The idea is to incrementally coerce you into those Smart Growth gulags next to that Smart Train.

    Response time should be quicker in the Transit Village if the trucks can make it by those Roundabouts.

  3. Big Jim says:

    Talk about manufacturing a crisis to demand increased tax dollars. “Overall, the county’s fire division, …met the 15-minute standard nearly 84 percent of the time, Aston noted” Which by the definition given, means they meet the federal average they are not even required to meet. Now Aston wants to adopt a standard to show they can’t meet it, in order to pressure for more money. Maybe they need it, but where is the viewpoint of local taxpayers and people living in the service area? Why only one side of the story? Is it just lazy reporting?

  4. David Keller says:

    Thanks for the article highlighting some of the difficulties for rural volunteer fire departments.

    As a former commissioner in a rural VFD (West Marin’s Bolinas FPD), I learned how important it is for residents in each district to understand what level of services they receive including response times, where there’s room for improvement (in staffing, gear, training and equipment), how much that will cost, and what the options are for adequate funding.

    Operating with knowledge about your local VFD makes it easier to secure reliable funding. It also puts a big light on just how important recruiting, training and keeping volunteers is. When there’s an influx of new residents who have the money to move into rural areas, but don’t participate or support their volunteer services, getting a full volunteer district staffed up is even more difficult.

    My best wishes for success to all these districts and their hardworking volunteers and families!