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.
Supervisor Mike McGuire called that move a "critical" step in a three-year planning process aimed at modernizing the fire division.
"Providing public safety, including fire and emergency services, is one of the main pillars of local government," he said. "These conclusions show us where we can improve."
The other two volunteer departments falling short of the national standards were Mountain and Lakeville. Two others, Sotoyome and Sea Ranch, were within half a percentage point below the 80 percent benchmark and were judged by officials as meeting the standard. The departments that met or exceeded the standard were Bloomfield, Bodega, Camp Meeker, San Antonio, Two Rock, Valley Ford and Wilmar.
A volunteer shortage has plagued a number of the departments, especially those in remote areas. Where the ideal staffing is 300 volunteers across the county, the current tally is 230.
Keeping those firefighters trained to current mandates is costly and time-consuming, Aston said.
The county also is in need of at least two replacement fire stations, in San Antonio and Two Rock.
To address those challenges and others, the report called for increased county spending on fire protection.
The county department's $3.9 million operating budget is drawn almost entirely from property taxes but gets no additional support from the county general fund, the main pot of discretionary money supporting public safety programs. As a result, volunteer firefighters have been forced to do fundraisers to cover fuel costs and utility bills for their departments, Aston said.
Other expenses, including vehicle maintenance and replacement, have been deferred or covered through grants.