Fire officials on Tuesday will ask the Board of Supervisors to approve a $42 million annual plan calling for more firefighters and new fire stations to plug response holes in the county — with a recommendation of a half-cent countywide sales tax hike to voters next year to fund it.
The plan would add about 175 paid firefighters, many of them paramedics, to bolster the county’s current paid firefighting force of 400. It also calls for 10 new fire stations to house round-the-clock staff, some of those in rural areas now served by volunteers.
One new station would replace a small volunteer firehouse in the hills north of Santa Rosa where the Tubbs fire swept into the county in October. Another would go up in Jenner, improving response times to emergencies on Highway 1 and the coast communities. Others are slated for Bloomfield in the west county and Lakeville, south of Petaluma.
It also calls for two new stations in Santa Rosa and one each in Rohnert Park and Petaluma, either replacing small, outdated structures or adding stations in areas more suited for current needs.
Fire officials called the plan a road map, with many details still to be fixed if and when funding is available. But the sweeping plan marks the first time the county’s historically fractured fire services community has come together on something to reshape the local firefighting landscape.
Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said the unified support for the plan is significant, involving many agencies whose representatives realized what it would mean for county residents.
“Not only will we have a higher level of service, we will have a better coordinated and managed response to emergencies in our county,” Gossner said.
Last fall’s firestorm that burned across huge portions of Santa Rosa and the county helped fuel efforts to form a plan to improve emergency response capabilities. It also solidified the Board of Supervisors’ determination to make changes.
“We may not have been able to skip what happened last October,” but with the plan in place, the county could have offered a stronger response, said Jim Colangelo, interim head of the county’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services.
After past boards shortchanged funding for county fire services, current supervisors have stepped up funding, providing $3.5 million for this year and nearly $4 million during the two proceeding years. That still falls well below what is needed to modernize and improve local services, fire chiefs say.
“It’s really about increasing that ability to get enough people and equipment to the site,” said Colangelo, who helped spearhead the plan. “In urban areas there is a good level of service, a lot of redundancy. But further away from the urban core, the more the service level becomes more about one engine with a couple people on it. We want to expand that higher level of service to more incidents and handle simultaneous incidents better.”
Still, while many may agree on the benefits of having more firefighters, better station locations and updated equipment, selling the public on an ongoing countywide sales tax could be more difficult.
“This is no small mission ahead of us if it’s going to be successful,” said Doug Williams, chairman of the county’s fire advisory committee and former chief of Rincon Valley and Windsor fire agencies.
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