County sets rural fire response standards, delays funding decisions

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted new benchmarks to measure and guide county firefighting coverage in unincorporated areas.

The policy adopts national response time standards that six of the county's 15 volunteer fire departments are currently not meeting.

Supervisors voiced an interest in resolving those service gaps, but the board postponed action on recommendations by fire officials, including a boost in manpower and money for the volunteer departments.

"We recognize there is absolutely a challenge when it comes to funding," said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who vowed a "healthy and robust discussion" about the budget for county fire services in the future.

Six of the 15 volunteer departments are centered in Carrillo's west county district, with five in Supervisor David Rabbitt's south county district and two each in Mike McGuire's and Valerie Brown's districts.

The network is responsible for covering 680 square miles of the unincorporated area and is overseen by a central county fire division, which was formed in 1994 and is separate from city and independent fire districts in the county.

Measures since 2009 have backed increased centralization of the service through the county command, but the Board of Supervisors has at the same time wrestled with how to fund a broader county fire service. Another competing vision would break apart the division and consolidate volunteer departments with other fire agencies. Board members Tuesday only touched on that debate in their deliberation about funding.

"All options lead to a discussion about dollars, and of course that's the issue we are going to be tested with in the months to come," said McGuire.

In the formal action, the board focused on adopting the new performance benchmarks for county fire service. They call for a response time of 15 minutes or less on 80 percent of incidents. Nine departments have met that national standard for rural agencies over the past four years and six are falling short, a report from the county's Fire and Emergency Services Department found.

Longer travel times in remote terrain are main factors, fire officials said. A shortage of able hands in rural communities is another, they said.

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