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Rethinking Fire Services, parts 3-4

Alfred "Al" Terrell, the new fire chief for Sonoma County Fire, greets Wilmar Volunteer firefighter Jesse Cole, Wed., Dec. 18, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Alfred “Al” Terrell, the new fire chief for Sonoma County Fire, greets Wilmar Volunteer firefighter Jesse Cole, Wed., Dec. 18, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)


(Read parts 1 & 2 here)

Part 3: Sonoma County’s new fire chief arrives at time of change

Alfred Terrell said he was looking for a new challenge when he applied last year for the top job leading Sonoma County’s Fire and Emergency Services Department.

Hired by the Board of Supervisors in November, Terrell, a former West Sacramento chief and 26-year fire services veteran, now has his work cut out for him.

Funding issues and potential mergers between local fire districts are weighing heavily on the future of the county department and the volunteer fire corps it oversees.

The new face in the chief’s post has added to the uncertainty for some on the county’s fire lines. Terrell, who started work in early December, has sought to extinguish those concerns.

“We’re in a time of change,” he said recently. “Things that are working well, I’m not here to change that. I’m here to assist this program in identifying efficiencies and to try to make it better. What that looks like, I don’t have my arms around that yet.”

Still, Terrell’s leadership — he is under a three-year contract — could be marked by fundamental changes in how the county provides and funds rural fire services, perhaps reshaping the map for its 15 volunteer companies.

The companies cover more than 40 percent of the county, with about 220 trained responders plus 100 board members and support personnel.

Their dispatch boundaries range in size from Annapolis, responsible for 126 square miles in the county’s rugged northwest corner, to tiny Camp Meeker, covering just two square miles north of Occidental.

The largest company, Wilmar, has 29 firefighters, while the smallest, Sotoyome, has just one and exists as a force in name only, having previously shifted its volunteers and duties to Healdsburg’s fire department.

The busiest, Sea Ranch and Wilmar, responded to more than 200 calls in 2012, according to the county. Fort Ross volunteers responded to the fewest — 16 calls.

Nearly all are plagued by funding woes, their annual support from the county insufficient to fully cover the rising cost of firefighting.

“I operate a fire department with $15,000 a year,” said Matt Epstein, the Valley Ford volunteer chief. “We do a good job. We could do better.”

Terrell has voiced support for the volunteer firefighters, calling them “dedicated and skilled,” the public face of a county-commanded program he called “incredible” and “very effective.”

At the same time, he has kept the door open for significant overhaul, including regional consolidations that could fold some companies into larger entities. A study of what could be the first of those mergers — involving the Knights Valley volunteers and departments from Healdsburg, Cloverdale and Geyserville — kicked off last year.

Such changes, fueled largely by funding shortages, are increasingly common for rural departments, though they can mean an end for beloved fire outfits that have represented remote outposts for decades or longer.

“In this day and time, the fire industry has to take a hard core look at how it does business,” Terrell said. “Opportunities to take advantage of incremental, regional consolidation should be taken seriously by certain areas. Is this one of them? I can’t say that yet.”

His predecessor, retired chief Mark Aston, presided over moves that solidified county command of the volunteer companies while seeking to improve their training, upgrade equipment and build new facilities.

The Board of Supervisors on Jan. 7 signed off on a $302,000 contract to build the latest of those projects, a new station in Annapolis. The total budgeted cost, including design, is $500,000.

Aston said such upgrades, though costly, are crucial.

“We have volunteers committed to these communities willing to put their life on the line to help their neighbors,” he said last month by phone from his home in Coarsegold, north of Fresno. “We owe them the best possible training, equipment and leadership.”

County supervisors have made similar comments but have resisted moves so far to dip into general funds to supplement fire services. Instead, they’ve tapped into special reserves to support capital projects and provide some one-time help for strapped departments.

“These companies all desperately need a permanent place to call their own, to work from, to train from and deploy from,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “The county has a role in that.”

What role is the question likely to dominate Terrell’s tenure, or at least his initial years with the county.

He said any decisions would not be immediate nor his alone. They would come from the Board of Supervisors, and ideally, from the volunteer ranks and the communities they serve.

At Sonoma County Fire's Lakeville station, volunteers use a generator as a training tool to prep for vehicle extrication, Tuesday Dec. 17, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

At Sonoma County Fire’s Lakeville station, volunteers use a generator as a training tool to prep for vehicle extrication, Tuesday Dec. 17, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Part 4: Sonoma County’s firefighting network differs from neighbors

Sonoma County’s 15 rural volunteer firefighting companies blend old school coverage with modern methods.

It’s not a unique model in the state, but it’s also not common and it differs sharply from how neighboring counties provide county fire services.

The volunteer companies operate under the umbrella of Sonoma County’s Fire and Emergency Services Department. Its $3.3 million firefighting budget supports insurance, training, equipment, maintenance and paid fire management in the county department, though each of the companies also have their own volunteer chiefs.

The overall budget for the department, which also handles hazardous materials, fire prevention and emergency services, is $9.2 million.

The model gives Sonoma County a volunteer firefighting force of about 220 responders — far below the stated goal of 300 volunteers.

The companies, aided by neighboring departments and districts that are volunteer and paid, are primarily responsible for protection and prevention across 680 square miles, or about 43 percent of the county.

The companies tend to cover some of the most rural and least populated areas — altogether just over 15,200 residents — with generally less property tax revenue to sustain independent operations.

But it is a cheaper operation than used in other counties, where funding and geographical challenges have also driven fire service decisions over the years.

Marin County has its own paid countywide department covering unincorporated areas spanning about 250 square miles, with responsibility for about 20,000 residents. Its overall budget is $20.5 million, including $3.5 million paid by Cal Fire to the county to cover areas of state jurisdiction.

Napa County, on the other hand, contracts with Cal Fire for coverage in the unincorporated area and Yountville, a region spanning about 720 square miles, with 29,000 residents. The department’s overall budget is $12.6 million.

Napa County has two dedicated sources of funding for its fire service, a watershed tax and a structure protection tax, both paid on the property tax bill. The county supports nine volunteer companies.

“There are always challenges when you mix career and volunteer firefighters,” said Scott Upton, the Napa County fire chief. “But I think we have a good system here. It’s working well.”

Fire officials say the hybrid approach, offering paid and volunteer ranks, suits rural areas with lower call volumes.

“My opinion is, for the taxpayer, that model works the best,” said Eric Hoffmann, Cal Fire unit chief for Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Solano, Colusa and Yolo counties. “It’s almost impossible to afford a full-time paid response in a county that is not fully urbanized.”

Volunteer firefighters throughout Sonoma County have been rushing to their neighbor’s aid for well over a century.

Throughout the years fire coverage in some areas settled into more organized fire districts — still primarily staffed by volunteers — and city departments.

For those rural communities that held onto their all-volunteer companies, it’s gotten harder and harder to keep up with rising costs and mandated safety regulations.

Multiple studies dating as far back as the 1970s have looked at consolidating fire services in different parts of the county. Many of the districts now in existence were once volunteer companies.

Sonoma County centralized management of its remaining volunteer companies in 1993. The move formed a single service area for the participating rural communities and dedicated a portion of the property tax — on average about 7 cents on the collected dollar, before a state shift for education funding — to fire protection.

The companies get $5,000 a year each from the shared budget overseen by Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services and $50 per response. That translates into less than $10,000 for most of the companies.

The assistance with insurance, equipment, maintenance and training is not separately accounted for each company.

In his last year on the job, Mark Aston, the recently retired county fire chief, pushed the Board of Supervisors for more money for the volunteers.

While that request wasn’t successful, he was able to secure capital funds for two new fire stations — in Annapolis and Lakeville — helping to solidify his support of the volunteer companies.

“It’s not like the old days. Nobody is running around with 20-year-old gear,” said Matt Epstein, chief of the Valley Ford volunteers. “We have brand new turnouts, breathing apparatus … The county does a real good job of keeping our personnel safe.”

Increasingly, however, the volunteers have to bolster their budgets with a growing number of fundraisers, known on the fire line as the three ‘Bs’ — breakfasts, barbecues and bake sales. Those efforts struggle to keep pace with the rising cost of firefighting, including ever-tighter training standards and expensive equipment.

“There aren’t enough pancakes to flip in the world” to pay for expenses such as a large fire engine, said Lakeville volunteer Chief Nick Silva, voicing support for the county’s management of the volunteer companies. The county recently gave Lakeville volunteers a new $500,000-plus fire engine, paid for with a grant and county funds.

This month the county acquired two new, small engines at $180,000 each for Camp Meeker and Mayacamas volunteer companies. The vehicles were paid for with grant money and out of county firefighting funds.

A third purchase up for approval Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors would secure a used engine for San Antonio’s volunteers, at a cost of $76,125.

Assistant County Fire Chief Roberta MacIntyre, a veteran of the department, acknowledged the money concerns, calling the volunteer companies “woefully underfunded.”

But she also defended the county’s model, saying its volunteer companies were far better off under the county’s centralized command and administration than volunteer companies in some of Northern California’s more rural counties, where they survive strictly on fundraisers and grants.

“We’re providing funding for them as best we can,” MacIntyre said. “It’s very difficult to meet all of their needs with the funding streams we have.”

“There is an unknown right now,” he said. “(But) this goes back to taking a hard look. If there are inefficiencies to identify, now is the time to do it. We’ve gone through some bad turns with the economy. Things are starting to stabilize a little bit. Now might be the perfect time.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)

2 Responses to “Rethinking Fire Services, parts 3-4”

  1. Robert says:

    These little political fiefdoms of fire service are something from a bygone era. They can’t survive financially or politically.

    The big question is what will replace them? Too many small time chiefs and boards. How effective are they?

    Seems like a big shakeup and reorganization is in order. The citizens deserve no less. Cut costs and management and duplication are in order. Combine these districts into something that makes sense.

    This isn’t rocket science. But when you are dealing with firefighters, politics and habit it is very difficult to make changes for the good.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  2. Papa ESoCo says:

    WSC is rapidly becoming irrelevant!

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

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