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Temporary staffing agreement will keep Kenwood’s fire engines running

Loss of two captains and an engineer created difficult situation

By Jay Gamel

One of the biggest headaches — among many — for small fire districts like Kenwood’s, is keeping good people when you can’t afford to pay even minimum going rates and don’t have a reserve of replacements. Fortunately for Kenwood, the neighboring fire district to the south has stepped up to fill the gap until the issue can be worked out. One way or another.

Captains Japen Soto and Scott Meyer, and Engineer Dean Martin, all veteran firefighters, are leaving; Soto and Martin as of Sept. 19, and Meyer sometime in October. These veterans represent half the firefighters available to staff Kenwood’s department 24/7. Low pay, high housing costs, huge training requirements, and timing — in the middle of fire season — all make hiring timely replacements impossible.

The Sonoma Valley Fire District (SVFD), adjacent to the Kenwood Fire Protection District (KFPD) on the south, has stepped up to provide replacement staff for the next nine months. Both boards of directors have approved a simple contract for two captains and two engineers, paramedics all, from SVFD to fill the staffing gap.

SVFD Chief Steve Akre addressed Kenwood’s directors at a regular meeting on Sept. 6. His district’s directors have also unanimously approved the same contract in front of Kenwood’s directors.

“We have worked closely together for years,” Akre said, “and we are happy to be able to help.” He noted that SVFD, having consolidated the Glen Ellen, Mayacamas, and City of Sonoma fire departments, is well enough staffed to lend a hand.

There will be no administrative charges or other fees for the services, which will be paid for by Kenwood on a monthly billing schedule. The set cost will be just under $38,000 a month, a minor increase over existing in-house staffing costs.

“It allows you time to figure out the next steps for the district,” Akre said.

“I feel very fortunate that we have the temporary solution that we have,” Kenwood Director Jack Atkin said. Atkin brings an extensive professional history in finance and accounting to the board and has been working hard on finance and budget issues.

“Financially, it is a solution that is very favorable and I’m for it,” he said, but cautioned that the board needs to pay close attention to what caused the current problem and work on avoiding it in the future.

While he is thankful and grateful for the quick assistance from the SVFD, Kenwood board chairman Bob Uboldi said, “We still need to hire and train replacements.”

After approving the nine-month contract, the board directed Fire Chief Daren Bellach to come up with a plan to maintain current staffing levels and report back in a month.

An extra bonus is that KFPD will have at least one paramedic onboard for calls, a significant increase in medical service. Kenwood has no paramedics. Fire departments can provide two levels of medical service on a call: Advanced Life Support (ALS), provided by paramedics; and Basic Life Support (BL), provided by emergency medical technicians (EMTs). While all firefighters are trained as EMTs, paramedic training is far more advanced and lengthy, enabling paramedics to perform many medical procedures not provided by EMTs. This difference is critical to upcoming ambulance staffing issues confronting all fire districts in the county right now. Keep in mind that about 80 percent of all fire calls are to provide medical attention, whatever the cause.

AMR is a private, for-profit company that has a multiyear contract to provide exclusive paramedic service for the northern end of Sonoma Valley. That contract is up for renewal. As it stands, the company has to provide ALS for all calls. It wants to move to a cheaper service that would provide BLS, depending on the nature of the call. That would be decided by the 911 operator taking the call and dispatching an ambulance.

The Sonoma County Fire District Association is on record against allowing this “tiered service” arrangement, calling it a degradation of service. The association wants a public agency to provide all ambulance services. According to folks who follow the issue, other private

ALS versus BLS

companies are anxious to underbid AMR. Having put off awarding the next exclusive service contract twice this year, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is set to hear the issue on Oct. 4.

Akre asked Kenwood to join the fire district association in endorsing a nonprofit choice. No decision was reached at the Sept. 6 meeting, though an endorsement may happen.

Addressing the staffing issues

The staffing and ambulance issues being faced by the Kenwood district are affected by the long-term problem of consolidating with other districts, long pushed by county supervisors and long a bone of contention among the county’s 30+ fire districts, ranging from San Pablo Bay to the coast and from Petaluma to Cloverdale. Many of these districts have consolidated in the past decade, but Kenwood remains a lone, small district sandwiched between Sonoma Valley to the south and the Sonoma County Fire District to the north and west. Both are conglomerates of consolidated districts. An attempt to merge with Sonoma Valley three years ago failed mainly because of the pay disparity.

Akre was careful to emphasize the temporary nature of the new staffing agreement, to assure Kenwood fire folks that it isn’t a specific step toward consolidation. That’s an issue for future discussion.

Kenwood offers the lowest firefighter pay in the county. It is also an expensive place to live, with few young adults available for volunteer duty. Recent property tax increases will not bring pay parity, nor will additional county offers to significantly supplement the district’s budget, as those offers are dependent, to some degree, on future taxes and political exigencies. New hires frequently move on to greener pastures as soon as they are trained. Resolving these issues is becoming more pressing by the day, though there is no consensus among the board, firefighters, or other districts about what’s best for Kenwood.

But for now, we’re covered.

Thanks, SVFD. Stay tuned.