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News: 09/15/2014

County kicks off review of fire services

Sonoma County has started a two-year process to review the numerous fire organizations serving unincorporated areas, with the stated goal of coming up with ways to make the entire system more efficient and effective.

Over 40 separate fire service entities exist – some are totally volunteer, some are special districts – with many facing rising challenges due in part to financial stress, changing demographics, and a steady drop-off of volunteers.

In northern Sonoma Valley, the Kenwood Fire Protection District and the Glen Ellen Fire Protection District are two of 29 special fire districts in the county, with a few paid staff, but mostly volunteers. The Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department is part of what’s known as County Service Area 40, 15 volunteer fire companies that operate under the county’s Fire and Emergency Services Department.

Fire chiefs of all three north valley fire departments reported in interviews and meetings that they are currently on good financial footing.

Discussions have been going on for years regarding tweaking, merging, or perhaps completely overhauling fire services in the county, but now those discussions have finally turned into a formal process to come up with specific recommendations, sure to ignite passionate debate between the county and local fire entities.

“There will be tough discussions, and it won’t be easy,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire at a Sept. 9 Board of Supervisors meeting. “But we have to tackle these kinds of legacy issues.”

Fire officials at the local volunteer and district level have previously been wary of county attempts to push what’s perceived as a “one size fits all” approach to the disparate fire organizations spread throughout the county, entities that often represent an important institutional connection to the communities they serve.

“There’s been a lack of trust on all sides when it comes to fire services. This Board of Supervisors wants to earn that trust,” said McGuire, emphasizing that the process will be transparent and open, that everything is on the table for discussion, and that there has been no predetermined outcome on the part of the county.

At that Sept. 9 meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved a work plan for a for a Fire Services Ad-Hoc Committee, a plan that includes extensive outreach to local fire officials and the community for input, focus groups, the creation of an advisory committee, and holding two Fire Service Summits with all interested stakeholders.

In addition, substantial amounts of data are being requested from fire organizations, including information on budgets, funding, personnel, incident responses, and equipment.

Chris Thomas, assistant county administrator, and Al Terrell, chief of the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department, introduced the work plan, also referred to as a “Charter,” to the board.

They outlined three principles that would guide decision making: that any final outcomes would result in a quality of service that equals or exceeds existing levels, that any decisions should increase the cost-effectiveness of fire services, and that decisions would be made with a “county-wide” view.

“The Charter will provide a framework for dialogue, not for decisions that have already been made,” said Terrell. “This is going to be an open debate moving forward.”

That debate has already begun, as county representatives have started to go to board meetings of the different fire organizations to lay out the process and answer the first round of what is sure to be many questions.

Peter Rumble, Deputy County Administrator for Community and Government Affairs, attended the meeting of the Glen Ellen Fire Protection District’s Board of Directors on the evening of Sept. 9.

Board members asked pointed questions, including whether the county had already made up its mind as to the outcome it wants, but Rumble assured them that this is just the beginning of a process to gather information and include all parties in discussion and decision-making.

“We want to see improvement in the fire system county-wide, and ensure that every entity in that system has adequate resources,” said Rumble.

County representatives will be making similar visits to a Kenwood Fire Protection board of directors meeting on Oct. 14, and to the Mayacamas directors meeting on Oct. 13.

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