6 volunteer fire departments miss response time standard

Six of Sonoma County's 15 volunteer fire departments fall short of a national standard for emergency response times because of their remote areas, struggles to retain volunteers and other factors, county fire officials said.

For rural fire agencies, the standard calls for a response time of 15 minutes or less 80 percent of the time.

Of the six departments failing to achieve that over the past four years, four met the standard a third to more than half of the time.

Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Aston said he is not surprised at the findings, contained in a report being considered today by the Board of Supervisors.

Overall, the county's fire division, which oversees the volunteer departments and provides coverage for 680 square miles of the unincorporated area, met the 15-minute standard nearly 84 percent of the time, Aston noted. Nine departments met or exceeded the standard in their response to fires, rescues, medical calls and other emergencies.

"I think the level of service is appropriate," Aston said.

The slowest average response times were by departments in Annapolis, Fort Ross, Knights Valley and Mayacamas, which cover some of the most remote parts of the county.

Firefighters assigned to such stations often need 10 minutes just to get to their post, grab their gear and respond to the emergency, Aston said. From there, longer travel distances and narrow roads can add to the delays, he said.

Improving response times will take more manpower and money, the report from Aston's department concluded, giving a list of recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.

The main suggestion is for the board to adopt the national response time and other coverage benchmarks as a way to measure and guide investment in the county's fire service.

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