Chiefs back plan to streamline fire services in Sonoma County
An influential advisory committee backed a proposal Wednesday to streamline Sonoma County’s tangled mix of ?40-plus fire agencies and request about $9.5 million in annual funding, ending a 14-month study that explored ways to reshape the county’s complex fire services network.
About three dozen fire officials from throughout the county hammered out the final decisions at an almost four-hour meeting that touched on the most sensitive issue - the identity of local fire agencies.
There was no contention over the decision to seek the money, as local fire officials believe the county has underfunded services for years and needs to step up its efforts. But the decision on whether to create a new regional structure with a goal of consolidating some local fire services divided those who wanted to maintain their autonomy and those who said change must come.
The two issues will go to the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 8.
“We made a step forward,” said Dan George, chief of Gold Ridge and Bennett Valley fire districts. “I never thought we would get to this point,” he added, noting the size of the advisory committee and the many opinions over the future of local fire agencies.
“There are so many little kingdoms, and people have that identity concern. They don’t want to lose anything,” Max Ming, fire chief for Russian River and Forestville, said after the meeting. “It’s been our biggest hurdle.”
What sold some holdouts on the regional plan was that it doesn’t force anyone to participate. It included a loose set of proposals that call for fire agencies within seven geographic regions in Sonoma County to figure out how to better streamline fire services in their areas, including consolidation, sharing volunteers, equipment, chief officers and administration. While any agency has that ability now, the plan would create a new countywide advisory committee, which officials thought would help spur action.
The committee would include a representative from each region as well as appointees from the county Board of Supervisors. It could help lobby for county money, some of which would be used as financial incentives for agencies to work more with their neighbors, fire officials said.
Sonoma Valley fire Chief Mark Freeman has pushed for the regional idea from the start, saying it’s time to reduce the number of fire agencies in the county and increase service efficiencies. Chiefs favoring the plan have said the fastest way to get fewer departments was to encourage agencies already working in the same corners of the county to make more of an effort.
“I’ve spent 14 months of my time invested in this. I hope we can be a catalyst for change,” Freeman said Wednesday prior to the vote. “The message to the community is we’re looking at something other than the status quo.”
Ming said he’d been concerned about the lack of details on the regional plan but that Freeman’s comments helped sell it. “To come out with a status quo plan and say ‘give us more money,’ that’s a tough one to choke down for the whole world to see.”
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors launched the study in 2014, wanting advice on how to reshape the county’s complex rural firefighting network. Fire protection and emergency response services aren’t expected to change much in the rural areas - someone always responds to 911 calls.
But decisions at the county level could alter the shape of those services and the ultimate cost to the taxpayers.
Supervisors started the study under increasing pressure to get involved as numerous changes were emerging throughout the county, including proposed annexations and consolidations of fire agencies. There is also a risk of service levels eroding in some rural pockets, where several of the county’s volunteer fire agencies are teetering on operational disaster due to dwindling volunteers and money and more expensive equipment and training needs.
The county’s study included an advisory group, initially numbering 80 members, that settled down to about 40 to 50 over the months.
On Wednesday, the committee rejected a proposal to maintain the status quo and shot down an alternative that would have formed a single, countywide fire department, although some chiefs said they thought that should be the vision for the future. A third proposal that would have outsourced a larger share of fire services to Cal Fire also didn’t garner strong support.
However, there was unanimous support for a proposal to seek more money from the county to fund fire services. The county, which oversees about a dozen volunteer fire companies, doesn’t use general funds to pay for fire services.