Last year, Santa Rosa firefighters responded to calls in the Rincon Valley Fire Protection District 1,400 times, while Rincon Valley firefighters helped Santa Rosa crews out inside city limits 889 times.

That means Santa Rosa taxpayers have essentially been subsidizing the fire protection of residents who live outside city limits.

This inequity is one of the reasons Santa Rosa fire officials have for more than a year been studying the department's relationship with the Rincon Valley and Windsor fire protection districts, jointly operated as Central Fire Authority of Sonoma County.

Now the three agencies have agreed to hire a consultant to study how the three departments can improve and expand the way they share services.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Mark McCormick told the City Council on Tuesday that he hopes the study will help identify areas of efficiency for all the departments involved.

The discussions have dragged on since January 2012 in part because there are so many groups at the table, including four labor unions, two management groups and three different boards, McCormick said.

"It's a lot of different interests to work with, so it's definitely a lot slower process involved," McCormick said.

The idea of sharing fire services is also a "very sensitive issue" for a variety of reasons, he said.

"Everybody is very passionate. They want to do a great job. They've been living in these areas and working in these departments for a long time," McCormick said.

Sharing fire services is common among departments in the state. McCormick said he's identified at least 20 agencies that share some form of services.

But the arrangements can also be controversial. A group of city managers who wrote a paper on the subject found a litany of concerns, including reluctance to give up operations, fear of losing control, concern over the loss of promotional opportunities and cultural differences.

"Some of the things that they've identified are really some of the same things that we've run into," McCormick said.

There is already a significant cooperation between the departments, most visibly the mutual aid agreements that require the closest units to respond to fires, car crashes, and other incidents regardless of jurisdiction.

One of the ideas that needs closer study is how to find a way to relieve the pressure on Santa Rosa's battalion chiefs. The industry standard is for a battalion chief to oversee five to seven engines. But Santa Rosa's three battalion chiefs take turns overseeing 12 engines, which McCormick said is "pushing the envelope."

There is one battalion chief in the Central Fire Authority overseeing four engines, he said.

Discussions have focused around merging Santa Rosa's 12 engines with Central Fire's four, and creating two separate merged battalions with a chief overseeing eight engines.

Under that scenario, Central Fire would create a second battalion chief position and Santa Rosa would share in the additional cost, roughly $150,000 to the city, he said.

But that could leave Santa Rosa firefighters under the command of chiefs from other departments and vice-versa, which would require greater cooperation and understanding of procedures.

Merging services could help Rincon Valley with the its geographic challenge, McCormick noted. The district extends well beyond the boundaries of the Rincon Valley northeast of Santa Rosa to cover virtually all the rural areas surrounding the city.

Merging fire marshal services is another area of exploration, McCormick said.

"They're pretty much doing the same job, same (building) code. Could we do that together and be more efficient?" he said.

Increasing the amount of services shared may improve efficiency, but it won't save any money in the short term, McCormick said. He said it could save money long-term.

The study is expected to cost about $45,000. Santa Rosa has agreed to share the cost with the other departments.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.