The Kenwood Press
News: 11/01/2016

Glen Ellen Fire Department looks at making changes

Alec Peters

The Glen Ellen Fire Protection District (GEFD) Board of Directors is considering a significant operational change at its next board meeting on Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m. at the Glen Ellen fire station.

On the agenda is an item to potentially enter into a $730,000 contract with the Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District (VOM), an agreement that would staff the GEFD with two VOM personnel 24 hours, seven days a week, one a captain and another an engineer/paramedic. This would include staying at the fire house on Arnold Drive overnight every day of the week.

The contract would also cover Glen Ellen’s administrative duties.

The proposal is a reflection of the challenges many local fire districts are having around Sonoma County, especially those dependent on volunteers, which has traditionally been the case in Glen Ellen.

GEFD currently has two paid fire personnel positions, but one spot is vacant and wouldn’t be filled if the contract is approved. The other paid firefighter position would have a job at VOM facilities.

GEFD has faced a dwindling number of volunteers over the years due to what GEFD board member Hal Weise calls a perfect storm: high housing prices, a dramatically shrinking pool of full-time residents to recruit from, and the increasing number of state-mandated training hours required for volunteers, which makes becoming a volunteer firefighter less attractive.

Fewer families are moving into Glen Ellen, and when housing changes hands, new buyers are likely not to live in Glen Ellen full time, if at all.

Weise said the number of volunteers is now 10, down from an average of 35 just a few years ago.

All this has forced some hard decisions for the GEFD Board of Directors.

“We simply don’t have enough volunteers to run this as a volunteer fire department anymore,” said Weise.

Weise emphasized that the contract would provide an upgrade in service to the community, as there will be a paramedic on site 24/7. Under the draft of the contract, VOM is not actually charging GEFD what it would cost for two 24/7 fire personnel positions, but instead for six VOM apprentice spots at its own stations, positions which are cheaper because they don’t get benefits.

The proposed contract is sure to be met with mixed emotions, as well as bring up questions regarding the future of a Glen Ellen institution that has been part of the fabric of the community since the 1920s.

George Psaledakis, vice-president of the Glen Ellen Firefighters Association, the fundraising arm of the district, said he understands the board has a fiduciary duty to provide the community with high quality fire services at the best price.

But as a volunteer firefighter and a Glen Ellen resident, Psaledakis said it’s difficult emotionally to envision that the long-standing tradition of a volunteer fire department may be coming to an end. He said that for decades the department and the firefighters association have been the backbone of the community, bringing together people and holding events such as the annual dinner-dance and Mother’s Day pancake breakfast.

Psaledakis said he hopes talk of the contract with VOM will serve as a “wake-up call” to the public to understand that providing quality fire services is expensive, and there is a need for better financial support for local volunteer fire departments.

GEFD is especially in a tough spot because, unlike many other volunteer departments in the county, GEFD does not impose some kind of levy, often known as a benefit assessment, on property owners in the district.

The agreement with VOM, if approved, would start on Jan. 1 and would last for five years, at which time it would be revisited.

The Glen Ellen Fire Protection District extends from the east slope of Sonoma Mountain to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains to the east. The district covers about 18 square miles containing 1,350 residences on 1,445 parcels, according to a review of operations report done by the department in 2014.

Since January, the GEFD has handled an average of just over 30 calls a month, most of them medical assistance calls.

Weise said the board is encouraging the public to come to the Nov. 8 board meeting to give input. The contract is only a draft at the moment, and Weise said the board would like to make some changes before any deal is signed.

The Glen Ellen fire station is located at 13445 Arnold Dr. in Glen Ellen.