The Kenwood Press
News: 11/15/2016

Public weighs in on potential GE fire department shift

Alec Peters

A dwindling number of volunteer firefighters has forced the Glen Ellen Fire District Board of Directors to look for new ways to staff fire, rescue and medical calls, and it is considering entering into a contract to partner with another district to provide service.

The public turned out at a Nov. 8 board meeting to hear more about the potential change, many anxious about the impact such an arrangement would have on the town as well as the Glen Ellen Fire Department (GEFD) itself, an institution that has been part of the fabric of the community since the 1920s.

Specifically, the board is looking to join up with the Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District, which operates as the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority (SVFRA). SVFRA currently covers the communities of Agua Caliente, Boyes Hot Springs, the City of Sonoma, Diamond-A, El Verano, Fetters Hot Springs, Temelec, and Seven Flags.

The agreement, still in the negotiating stages, would have SVFRA staff the Glen Ellen fire station on Arnold Drive with a captain and an engineer/paramedic 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which includes staying on site overnight.

The total amount of the contract would be $730,000, which covers the fire personnel as well as administrative, training and equipment services.

“Our job as a board is to see that the community is protected,” said board member Bob Norrbom, Sr. “Now the response [time] is not what we would like.”

Currently there are only 10 volunteers at the GEFD, said Norrbom, with maybe two or three turning out for a call. “The situation is serious and we need to do something.”

Board members said the deal would enable quicker response times. Presently there are about 30 calls a month, the majority of which are medical related.

The Nov. 8 meeting was attended by over 50 people, with some residents expressing concern that the contract was already a done deal, and asking if the board had explored other options.

Board members explained that they and GEFD staff have been trying to address the volunteer crisis for some time, have had discussions with a number of fire entities, and that the current proposal is still a draft with a number of details yet to be worked out to the board’s satisfaction.

“We’re not trying to rush into anything,” said Norrbom, who said that if the board decides to go forward, the matter will come back before the public with all the budgetary details.

A common concern of speakers at the meeting was what happens to the current volunteers, some of whom traditionally have used their volunteer service and training as a springboard to getting professional fire service jobs.

Board members explained that the proposed contract does not mean the end of the GEFD’s volunteer program. Glen Ellen volunteers can still respond and supplement the SVFRA staff. There’s also room at the Glen Ellen fire station’s sleeping quarters for a third person, which potentially could be set aside for a sleeper program for GEFD volunteers.

SVFRA personnel on hand at the meeting said that working with SVFRA resources would mean even more experience for Glen Ellen volunteers.

“We will make sure that volunteers at this station are going to get as many opportunities as they can,” said SVFRA Battalion Chief, Bob Norrbom, Jr. (Bob senior’s son), who also has a history of serving as a GEFD volunteer for many years.

Glen Ellen board members emphasized that the proposal is not a merger of departments, but a way to better provide service for Glen Ellen residents. The Glen Ellen Fire Protection District remains a legal entity, as does the board of directors. Fire vehicles would keep the GEFD name and logos.

GEFD Officers gave the board a letter encouraging the board to go forward with the SVFRA deal.

“It is without dispute that the Glen Ellen Fire District is no longer able to respond to and mitigate emergencies within its jurisdiction,” the letter stated, describing the proposal as, “a staffing model that will best meet the needs of the community while remaining well within the current budget.”

GEFD is in the same boat as a number of volunteer fire departments throughout the county, with many having entered into agreements with other fire entities to increase efficiencies.

Glen Ellen has been particularly impacted by demographic changes. Housing prices are out of reach of families and there aren’t as many full time residents, leading to a smaller and smaller pool from which to recruit volunteers. In addition, the extensive training now required for volunteers by the State of California often is a hurdle for potential volunteers because of the time commitment.