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Close to Home: Rural fire service in Sonoma County is in crisis and needs help

Lakeville volunteer firefighters gather prior to a drill. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat, 2013)

FRED PETERSON AND RICHARD GULSON,

FRED PETERSON IS AN ENGINEER FOR THE GEYSERVILLE VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT. RICHARD GULSON IS A SUPPORT VOLUNTEERS FOR THE KENWOOD FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT.

On Sunday night, Oct. 8, Sonoma County experienced a multitude of devastating fires. Though overwhelmed by the size, intensity and rate of spread of these blazes, fire departments throughout Sonoma County responded quickly and with every available engine and firefighter. From cities, fire districts and volunteer fire companies, the call for mutual aid was answered without hesitation.

The fire service in Sonoma County, especially in rural areas, now finds itself in need of some mutual aid from our citizens and the Board of Supervisors.

Because the fire service’s can-do ethos and the mutual aid system have largely masked the symptoms, most residents and visitors are unaware that fire and emergency service delivery in rural Sonoma County is in crisis. This crisis didn’t happen overnight. It is a result of 35 years of demographic and economic changes that have dramatically increased demands for emergency services without the funding required to meet these demands.

Although rural fire service in Sonoma County still relies on its dedicated and highly trained volunteer firefighters to respond to emergency calls, the number of volunteer firefighters continues to decline countywide. The county has benefited from the selflessness of volunteers, not just the firefighters but the voluntary leadership of board members, chiefs and others. But no longer is it possible to fund adequate emergency response with thousands of hours of volunteer time and pancake breakfasts. Achieving anything close to national fire standards on a uniform and equitable basis across the county will not be cheap, nor will it be delivered quickly. Because of decades of funding deficits, the gap is significant, and without a timely and substantial commitment, it will only grow wider.

After two years of review by a Fire Advisory Committee, followed by another two years of work by the Fire Service Advisory Council, the current situation has been thoroughly analyzed and the near-term goal of consolidating fire and emergency service delivery agreed upon. Consolidating fire and emergency services began prior to any of these current processes, out of necessity, because of the limitations all rural fire departments were experiencing. Consolidation, by itself, will not produce enough financial efficiency to make up for the current shortfall. Other sources of funding must be developed by the Board of Supervisors and the county administrator.

We believe that the fire service community has done, and continues to do, what has been asked of them by county leadership. Practical visions for the future are taking shape and have been modeled and articulated within some of the geographic regions in our county.

A good example of this work is the Region No. 3 (Sonoma Valley) plan, which can be summarized thus: “Operationally consolidate all Sonoma Valley fire and emergency services from Kenwood in the north to Schell-Vista in the south, creating a single fire agency providing a uniform level of service, including paramedic staffed engines supported by volunteers.”

Similar plans have been developed for other fire service management regions. These plans should be supported and funded without delay so as to send a clear message that progressive and imaginative thinking toward agreed upon goals will be rewarded.

It is time for county leadership to step up to the plate, be visible, responsible and take ownership of the difficult, but ultimately necessary, decisions needed to allow this to become a reality.

Citizens of Sonoma County, we are all in this together. Urge your supervisor to make fire service funding a true priority. We must start now to build and fund a system that delivers first-class fire and emergency services for the entire county, not just the major cities or high property tax communities. Disaster, as we learned from the recent firestorms, is an equal opportunity threat.

Fred Peterson is an engineer for the Geyserville Volunteer Fire Department and serves as a director with the Geyserville Fire Protection District. Richard Gulson has served with Kenwood Fire Protection District since 1970 and is currently a support volunteer.