If approved, it would be the largest fire service merger in modern county history. Supporters say the idea is born of a dire need.
Cloverdale and Geyserville districts are struggling with tighter budgets, fewer volunteers and increasing calls for help. Those two agencies and Healdsburg's department all work together so much in their expansive corner of the county that it seems like common sense to join forces, Cloverdale Fire Chief Jason Jenkins said.
"Cloverdale, Geyserville and Healdsburg were looking at opportunities to share resources and provide a stronger volunteer workforce for our community," Jenkins said.
The other entity involved is the Knights Valley Volunteer Fire Department, overseen by Sonoma County's Fire and Emergency Services Department.
The four outfits are working on the idea with Sonoma County officials under the guidance of the county's Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees expansions of government boundaries. A six-month study commissioned by LAFCO is expected in May. Recommended results would range from doing nothing to a partial merger to all-out consolidation.
While the northern chiefs said they favor several benefits of regionalized firefighting, they also listed numerous hurdles.
"We have very different budgets, staffing levels, pay scales, benefits," said Healdsburg Fire Chief Steve Adams. "If the agencies are to merge, there's a lot of work to be done at the financial level... It's not as easy as it sounds."
Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood said the city is participating in the study, but the City Council wouldn't want to make changes if they reduce the effectiveness of the city's firefighting force.
"If there are ways we can help other agencies and still continue to provide the highest level of service, we're definitely open to that," Wood said.
Geyserville and Cloverdale fire officials are committed to a merger and could complete it relatively quickly, said Jenkins and Geyserville Chief Marshall Turbeville.
A larger consolidation taking in the entire north county could take at least three years, fire officials said.
Mergers occur periodically, to varying degrees. In 2011, the departments in Windsor and Rincon Valley consolidated their management into the Central Fire Authority; firefighters have remained with their original departments. The effort still is working through growing pains involving budgets and staffing.
In 2012, the city of Ukiah in Mendocino County took steps toward merging three fire departments by hiring a fire chief who already was chief of the Ukiah Valley Fire District and Hopland volunteers.
On the east side of Sonoma County, the city of Sonoma and Valley of the Moon district firefighters in 2002 formed a joint-powers authority that evolved into a complete consolidation under the name of the Sonoma Valley Fire Protection District.
Others have rejected the idea. A 2005 study recommended that Bodega Bay, Monte Rio and Russian River districts merge into a single regional agency, but the district boards never took that step and remain independent entities.
Patchwork of firefighting agencies
The northern departments involved in current merger talks form a microcosm of Sonoma County's mishmash of firefighting agencies.
Cloverdale, covering 68 square miles, and Geyserville, covering 218 square miles, are fire districts. They have a couple of paid firefighters, a handful of volunteer firefighters and part-time paid chiefs.
Healdsburg's department covers four square miles with 12 paid firefighters and a full-time paid chief.