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Knights Valley resident Bud Pochini runs his welding business, owns a Christmas tree farm and helps coach high school softball. And for the past 25 years, he has been a mainstay of the Knights Valley Fire Co. volunteers.

Fallen trees, neighbors’ medical emergencies, car crashes. Some of the calls are so grim the assistant fire chief wonders why he sticks with it.

The simple answer is Pochini is one of only four remaining Knights Valley Fire volunteers, covering all types of emergency calls in a 54-square-mile area.

“Who else would do it?” he asked.

Pochini, 54, is among an estimated 100 active volunteer firefighters in Sonoma County’s 11 remaining companies, which are overseen by the county’s administrative fire agency. They cover 600 square miles — a third of the unincorporated county — and in 2016 fielded 1,200 emergency calls.

The companies, down from 14 last year, have been a proud force in local firefighting history stretching back 150 years and remain an integral part of the emergency response network in the county’s rural areas.

The volunteer rosters today include the grown children of career firefighters and ranchers, current firefighters, high school students and retirees.

But lack of funding and waning interest in volunteer fire service — fewer residents are willing or able to commit to the rigorous training and unpredictable time demands — are leading many of the county’s volunteer fire departments toward obsolescence.

“We’re in so much jeopardy,” said Knights Valley board member Steve Gould, referring to the volunteer network. “We can’t go away, but we are.”

Lengthy response times, deteriorating stations and aging equipment — with insufficient county money to make upgrades — along with thinning emergency coverage have emerged as chronic challenges testing the ability of many volunteer companies to carry out their duties and sustain operations.

In search of a solution, fire and county officials have launched efforts that could shake up the fire services landscape, leaving in question not only the future of a number of fire agencies, but also the county’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

“There have been political decisions made over 30 years that benefited some fire companies and thrown other ones in the dirt. That is not the way to run public safety,” Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said. He put a lot of blame on the county, but also pointed to infighting among fire service leaders.

For so long, there has been “no clear path forward, just warring factions,” Gore said, comparing fractious chiefs to “warlords.”

Winds of change afoot

Yet while chiefs have been reluctant in years past to change, digging in to protect turf, those attitudes have eased as the antiquated system has developed clearer cracks.

“We have come to terms. It’s time for us to evolve,” said Sonoma County Fire Chief Al Terrell, who oversees the volunteer companies.

“They’re concerned. They could become part of this or that or they could go away,” Terrell said. Big moves for the volunteer companies could trigger change for his department as well.

Currently, from one end of the county to the other, response gaps are filled more and more by Cal Fire, neighboring cities and fire districts with stations staffed by paid firefighters. Some of those outfits also face financial, equipment and staffing struggles.

On the whole, it’s a fire safety network that mostly works, but shortfalls in the system have added strain on larger agencies and fueled a widening call among both volunteer and paid fire chiefs to direct more taxpayer dollars to local fire agencies.

“The county has never funded fire appropriately, period,” said Gold Ridge Fire Chief Dan George, who runs a combination paid and volunteer fire district southwest of Sebastopol. “We’re filling in the holes … sometimes the only (agency) to the scene and first to the scene.”

County mirrors state

Sonoma County is not alone in its struggle to maintain a fully prepared and modern fire service network in the face of demographic changes and limited funding.

In many California counties the answer has been consolidation, merging neighboring fire agencies to form a smaller number of departments with wider coverage areas. Several counties contract with Cal Fire to run the bulk of firefighting operations, such as in Napa and Riverside. Others have a large county department with paid firefighters, such as in Marin and Contra Costa. Volunteers remain a component.

In Sonoma County there are 37 public fire agencies, excluding the Two Rock Coast Guard, Dry Creek Rancheria and Eldridge agency serving the Sonoma Developmental Center. The public agencies have combined budgets of more than $82 million. Cal Fire also has a strong county presence, with local headquarters in west Santa Rosa, an aerial attack base at the county airport and nine stations, operating seasonally and year-round.

The agencies deliver varying levels of service across an urban and rural landscape — an arrangement that many chiefs say is outdated.

“There’s a reason why most counties don’t look the way we do. They’ve evolved. This way doesn’t work,” said Terrell.

Despite the county’s increase in population, development and traffic, the volunteer companies haven’t seen any substantial increase in level of service or support in a long time, said Todd Derum, Cal Fire’s division chief for Sonoma County. “That clearly underscores the importance to address the fire services’ delivery issues.”

“The demands for service and industry standards far surpassed what’s going on in Sonoma County some time ago,” Derum said.

At the heart of the dilemma are longstanding organizational woes, the loss of state public safety money and chronic shortfalls in local funding. For decades, supervisors have declined to use county general funds for fire response needs and confronted the problem instead with studies, balking at the biggest changes, which almost always involve more money.

Special tax measure elections to bolster budgets have had mixed results. Most departments have had to barbecue, bake and bingo their way to solvency.

“You don’t see (other) public service departments, whether water or roads or any other departments, flipping pancakes to make ends meet,” San Antonio volunteer Chief Ron Pomi said.

Pomi, 70, has spent 51 years volunteering as a firefighter in the rural community south of Petaluma. In that time, he’s stood over the griddle and grill to make ends meet for his company, cooking thousands of pancakes and chicken legs. His 21-member department, called out about 200 times a year, pays more than $2,000 per month rent for the small, two-bay warehouse acting as a temporary station off Petaluma Boulevard South. Plans by the county for a permanent San Antonio station have been stalled for years.

“It takes everything we can fund-raise, plus quite a bit more out of savings to meet our commitments,” Pomi said.

In the face of escalating costs and dwindling volunteer ranks, frustrated chiefs have presented a more united front than in years past to push for additional money.

They tallied unmet needs of about $11 million annually, including dispatch fees, volunteer recruitment and funding to replace millions of dollars in state money earmarked for public safety, which mainly went to sheriffs’ offices and districts attorney offices.

Supervisors, acknowledging the frustration and the challenge, have responded in part by ordering up a trio of studies costing about $225,000, while also allocating $2 million in funds since 2015.

“Without the (remaining) $9 million we can’t overcome the inefficiencies or the lack of staffing in the Bloomfield, Valley Ford or these volunteer areas,” said George, the Gold Ridge chief. “Without the money, this latest effort will turn out like the six other previous studies the county has done.”

Supervisors have promised more money in return for progress on streamlining the system.

“We’re going to put money toward people who will consolidate into regional (agencies),” said Gore. “We’re not just going to continue paying for incremental annual needs.”

Some chiefs praise the county’s action, saying the money and support are a start. Others say the bureaucratic process, including more studies and committees, only slow what could be faster action by fire officials.

“A group of us are tired of waiting for them to come up with an answer,” said Jack Piccinini, chief of Rincon Valley and Windsor fire districts.

Pending proposals

Proposals due to come to a head this spring and summer include:

Asking Cal Fire and Novato Fire District for a cost estimate for administering the volunteer fire companies instead of the county. Should the volunteer companies leave the county department, it would substantially gut the Fire Services and Emergency Services department, which has an annual budget of $10.6 million, including hazardous materials response and fire prevention.

The findings of a $110,000 study commissioned in 2016 by supervisors for an independent analysis of fire coverage, including response gaps, capital needs and the effectiveness and cost of the county’s fire services department. County supervisors consider it crucial, unbiased data that will lead to change. Numerous chiefs are skeptical, given the county’s history of ordering and shelving studies.

Fire chiefs championing an $18,000 workshop to envision what the county might look like divided into fewer, geographically based fire agencies. “Let’s get in a room and get the maps out,” said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who proposed the idea. A county-paid facilitator will lead the effort, expected to occur in June.

Chiefs asking the Board of Supervisors for about $4.5 million of the approximate $20 million collected in 2016 from taxes paid on hotel stays. During the annual giveaway to dozens of nonprofits and public agencies impacted by tourism, chiefs last year received $768,000 for dispatch costs.

Supervisor David Rabbitt and Gore, who oversee fire issues for the board, have thrown cold water on the hefty request.

“They know that is not a solution and they did it as a reinforcement that we need to fund them and that message has been heard loud and clear,” Gore said.

Department under scrutiny

Sonoma County got into firefighting administration in 1993 to improve emergency response in unincorporated areas by giving support and training to volunteer companies, using property tax money to pay for the aid.

But the county department has come under increased scrutiny and criticism from fire chiefs, who question the service it provides, as well as Chief Terrell’s leadership in advocating for the companies at a critical junction. The frustration fueled a move last year by chiefs to look elsewhere for new administration.

“A lot of us feel that (the budget) all goes to administration of county fire and doesn’t get out to the troops,” said Ernie Loveless, Schell-Vista fire district board member and former Cal Fire chief.

The county department’s annual operating budget of about $2.4 million leaves about $1 million for its volunteers and about $1.35 million to fully cover salaries, benefits and support for four administrative staff and partly cover the compensation of four others, including half of Terrell’s $221,320 salary and benefit package.

“As an ex-fire chief I cannot imagine spending almost $3 million a year and not having one paid firefighter with boots on the ground,” Loveless said.

Terrell said salaries, which are set by the county, are in line with the industry and that his department’s staffing is lean for its range of duties. He said he’s aware of complaints regarding his leadership and that he and his staff have stepped up efforts. “Relationships have jumped forward in a really positive way,” he said.

Volunteer fire officials suspect their look to an outside agency factored in that improvement. For the first time they’ve been invited to participate in budget discussions and the county is now paying for vehicle maintenance costs and is discussing money to replace vehicles — which currently falls to the companies unless grants can be found.

“Things have gotten a lot better for us, but we should have been there long before this,” said Wilmar volunteer Chief Mike Mickelson.

The county’s current study will factor into supervisors’ consideration of whether to have the county continue administering the volunteer companies.

“I have to put county fire on the same potential chopping block as anybody else and I’m willing to do that,” said Gore.

Terrell said he welcomed the review and supported the effort to look outside the county.

“My main priority is we end up with improved service levels countywide,” he said. “My hope is we are an option.”

But some chiefs hope the review spurs the county to back out of fire services.

“They are fat with overhead,” said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who runs a volunteer fire district. “The county has got to realize they do a terrible job in fire services and have got to give it to someone else.”

Fewer volunteers

Sonoma County’s dwindling volunteer network mirrors state and national trends. Aging populations in rural areas have shrunk the pool of volunteer candidates while those in the workforce tend to be employed outside their rural communities, meaning many are available only on nights or weekends.

The county reported 350 volunteers in fire companies in 2013. This year, the tally is down to about 200 people, about half of whom are able to regularly respond to calls, according to chiefs. An additional 75 residents help the companies as board members.

Not all volunteer companies are in bad shape. Wilmar, on the populated edge of western Petaluma, and Bodega, serving the crossroads coastal community, have robust volunteer ranks deep with career firefighters and strong community support. In recent years Wilmar and Bodega have raised enough money to build new stations and acquire new engines. Bodega had some county support for its station.

It’s far different in other communities, often where stations don’t stand on busy byways and residents are scattered across remote hills and valleys.

“We have a couple on our roster over 70 years old,” said Fort Ross Volunteer Chief Steve Ginesi of his ranks. He estimated his tiny coastal department could survive just another five years. “Unless things change, we are going to have a significant problem.”

Volunteers in Bloomfield in west county folded their company last year because they had too few members. That 7-square-mile jurisdiction now is technically covered by the already thinly staffed Two Rock and Valley Ford volunteer fire companies.

“It’s a concern just to cover our own district, let alone Bloomfield,” said Valley Ford Fire Chief Ron Caselli, who works as an engineer with Marin County Fire and has a volunteer roster of seven.

“Often just one of us can make it to a call. It’s great when it’s two people that go to a call,” Caselli said. “The way we’re going is not sustainable.”

Aid on a call from neighboring fire agencies is standard but for calls in volunteer jurisdictions, dispatchers send backup for another reason: in case volunteers don’t respond or there are too few available to properly handle a call. For emergencies in the Bloomfield, Valley Ford and Two Rock areas, dispatchers also send paid firefighters from the nearest staffed stations, including the Two Rock Coast Guard, Bodega Bay, Marin Fire in Tomales and Cal Fire. Relying on agencies from further away typically adds to response times.

A review of calls to volunteer fire companies in the first two months of the year showed numerous instances in which neighboring agencies were first to the scene. Of 11 calls in Knights Valley, a volunteer arrived first seven times, including a nearly 18-minute response to a medical aid and an approximately 23‑minute response to a vehicle fire.

Gore said fixing the coverage gaps and improving response times are “where our focus needs to be. We have to hold ourselves to a high level of coverage, service and response.”

Terrell said he’s concerned about the county’s firefighting response as well and credited the mutual‑ and automatic‑aid dispatch program for keeping the system afloat. But the volunteers still offer valuable services to their neighbors, he said. “They rely on one another.”

For the volunteer chiefs, the whole picture adds up to an uncertain future.

“Not too far down the road we’ll have to make some serious decisions,” said Mickelson, Wilmar’s volunteer chief. “It’s a change from what we’ve been working on the last 30, 40, 50 years. We have to be ready to adapt to the change.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been revised to provide the correct figure for the value of Al Terrell's 2016 compensation package. It is $221,320, not $340,000 as originally stated.