By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For 155 years, Healdsburg has had its own fire department and, despite recent funding struggles, it appears it won’t be going away anytime soon.
The City Council this week quickly dismissed the possibility of Cal Fire, the state agency, taking over fire duties in the city.
The thought of losing control to the state “is disconcerting,” said Councilman Jim Wood. “I want to see Healdsburg on the (uniform) patches.”
Gary Plass reflected the sentiments of his fellow council members when he said contracting out fire services to the state “is a dead issue.”
The idea of out-sourcing firefighting duties to the state emerged in a report prepared by Healdsburg Fire Chief Steve Adams to assess options and alternatives for the delivery of fire services.
While council members rejected the notion of Cal Fire taking over that role in Healdsburg, they did encourage Adams to explore some form of shared services with neighboring fire departments.
“Regionalization is the way to go,” said Mayor Susan Jones. “Not that I don’t like Cal Fire. They have airplanes,” she said, adding that air attacks helped quell a fire near her neighborhood of Parkland Farms, on the city’s northern outskirts.
“I also want to see familiar faces of the men and women who stayed with us through tough times,” she said in reference to the Healdsburg Fire Department employees.
In budget hearings last year, the City Council acknowledged the fire department is operating at minimum staffing levels.
“Currently, diminished funding sources and increasing employee costs are pitted against numerous workplace mandates and demand for services,” Fire Chief Steve Adams told the City Council on Monday.
He said the ability to train enough firefighters and assemble equipment to attack fires has been compromised.
While response times haven’t suffered — they are three to five minutes on 90 percent of emergency calls — Adams said it has been difficult to adequately provide for public outreach and education, fire prevention and disaster/emergency management planning.
In an interview Tuesday, Adams said the fire department budget is $2.3 million, down from a high of $2.7 million four years ago.
There are now 10 full-time firefighters including the chief, augmented by 24 reserve firefighters. But the department had to drop a division chief/training officer position two years ago.
A 40-hour fire engineer position eliminated in the 2009-10 fiscal year is now funded with a two-year, $325,000 grant administered by the Department of Homeland Security.
Adams said fire department employee concessions totaled nearly $100,000, mostly through workers agreeing to cover more of their medical and pension costs.
The department takes in more than just the city limits. It covers 70 square miles and is responsible for calls in unincorporated areas such as lower Dry Creek Valley, Mill Creek Road and Fitch Mountain.
The department gets some revenue from the county in return, Adams said. But he said there may be opportunities for the city to get more tax increment revenues from county areas in the future.
And he was encouraged by the council to partner with neighboring departments, such as Geyserville and Cloverdale, to explore cost-sharing. Adams said that a training officer position potentially could be split between the organizations.
Already the departments share battalion chief coverage for all three agencies for command and control of major incidents.
Adams pointed to a couple successful examples in Sonoma County where departments have combined to share administrative and other duties.
One is the City of Sonoma and Valley of the Moon fire departments, which operate under the joint umbrella of the Sonoma Valley Fire Authority.
The second is between the Windsor and Rincon Valley fire districts.
Windsor and Rincon Valley formed Central Fire Authority in 2011, part of a “joint powers agreement” that created a new agency overseeing both fire departments. The arrangement, facilitated by the retirement of Windsor’s longtime fire chief, created a unified command structure and resulted in other savings by eliminating duplication of staff duties and supplies. But each fire district continues to exist with its own name, budget, firefighting staff and payroll.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.