Sonoma County's new fire chief arrives at time of change

Alfred Terrell said he was looking for a new challenge when he applied last year for the top job leading Sonoma County's Fire and Emergency Services Department.

Hired by the Board of Supervisors in November, Terrell, a former West Sacramento chief and 26-year fire services veteran, now has his work cut out for him.

Funding issues and potential mergers between local fire districts are weighing heavily on the future of the county department and the volunteer fire corps it oversees.

The new face in the chief's post has added to the uncertainty for some on the county's fire lines. Terrell, who started work in early December, has sought to extinguish those concerns.

"We're in a time of change," he said recently. "Things that are working well, I'm not here to change that. I'm here to assist this program in identifying efficiencies and to try to make it better. What that looks like, I don't have my arms around that yet."

Still, Terrell's leadership -#8212; he is under a three-year contract -#8212; could be marked by fundamental changes in how the county provides and funds rural fire services, perhaps reshaping the map for its 15 volunteer companies.

The companies cover more than 40 percent of the county, with about 220 trained responders plus 100 board members and support personnel.

Their dispatch boundaries range in size from Annapolis, responsible for 126 square miles in the county's rugged northwest corner, to tiny Camp Meeker, covering just two square miles north of Occidental.

The largest company, Wilmar, has 29 firefighters, while the smallest, Sotoyome, has just one and exists as a force in name only, having previously shifted its volunteers and duties to Healdsburg's fire department.

The busiest, Sea Ranch and Wilmar, responded to more than 200 calls in 2012, according to the county. Fort Ross volunteers responded to the fewest -#8212; 16 calls.

Nearly all are plagued by funding woes, their annual support from the county insufficient to fully cover the rising cost of firefighting.

"I operate a fire department with $15,000 a year," said Matt Epstein, the Valley Ford volunteer chief. "We do a good job. We could do better."

Terrell has voiced support for the volunteer firefighters, calling them "dedicated and skilled," the public face of a county-commanded program he called "incredible" and "very effective."

At the same time, he has kept the door open for significant overhaul, including regional consolidations that could fold some companies into larger entities. A study of what could be the first of those mergers -#8212; involving the Knights Valley volunteers and departments from Healdsburg, Cloverdale and Geyserville -#8212; kicked off last year.

Such changes, fueled largely by funding shortages, are increasingly common for rural departments, though they can mean an end for beloved fire outfits that have represented remote outposts for decades or longer.

"In this day and time, the fire industry has to take a hard core look at how it does business," Terrell said. "Opportunities to take advantage of incremental, regional consolidation should be taken seriously by certain areas. Is this one of them? I can't say that yet."

His predecessor, retired chief Mark Aston, presided over moves that solidified county command of the volunteer companies while seeking to improve their training, upgrade equipment and build new facilities.

The Board of Supervisors on Jan. 7 signed off on a $302,000 contract to build the latest of those projects, a new station in Annapolis. The total budgeted cost, including design, is $500,000.

Aston said such upgrades, though costly, are crucial.

"We have volunteers committed to these communities willing to put their life on the line to help their neighbors," he said last month by phone from his home in Coarsegold, north of Fresno. "We owe them the best possible training, equipment and leadership."

County supervisors have made similar comments but have resisted moves so far to dip into general funds to supplement fire services. Instead, they've tapped into special reserves to support capital projects and provide some one-time help for strapped departments.

"These companies all desperately need a permanent place to call their own, to work from, to train from and deploy from," said Supervisor David Rabbitt. "The county has a role in that."

What role is the question likely to dominate Terrell's tenure, or at least his initial years with the county.

He said any decisions would not be immediate nor his alone. They would come from the Board of Supervisors, and ideally, from the volunteer ranks and the communities they serve.

"There is an unknown right now," he said. "(But) this goes back to taking a hard look. If there are inefficiencies to identify, now is the time to do it. We've gone through some bad turns with the economy. Things are starting to stabilize a little bit. Now might be the perfect time."

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or at brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.)