Officials: Calif. firefighting agencies still searching for improvements

There is a fall deadline from Sonoma County supervisors to come up with a long-range plan streamlining the county’s nearly 40 fire agencies

By Randi Rossmann
The Press Democrat

SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. —  Officials from three fire agencies surrounding Santa Rosa who envision becoming a single firefighting agency were among scores of fire officials who met Saturday to hammer out a vision for improving Sonoma County’s complex and uneven firefighting delivery service.

There is a fall deadline from Sonoma County supervisors to come up with a long-range plan streamlining the county’s nearly 40 fire agencies.

Saturday marked a high point in cooperation and planning for the historically fractured fire services community as more than 75 fire officials worked in regional groups to tackle the thorny questions of filling gaps in coverage, lengthy response times in some rural areas, relocating fire stations, replacing aging engines, sharing volunteers and equipment, and calculating how much new staffing is needed.

Progress was incremental and chiefs acknowledged the process has a long way to go.

The workshop was the latest part of a three-year effort by the county to improve fire services, as fire officials have clamored for help for agencies facing severe financial and staffing struggles.

Fire officials have asked supervisors for as much as $11 million annually to plug holes and enable financially healthy fire agencies to help the struggling ones.

Supervisors have said that amount is unlikely, but have pledged financial aid tied to signs of progress toward consolidating into fewer agencies.

Missing from Saturday’s discussion was what county officials considered crucial information: the results of a $110,000 county-commissioned study compiling details on each fire department’s staffing, equipment, finances, response times and abilities.

The study is expected to point out weaknesses in the fire service network and include a review of the effectiveness of the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department, which oversees 11 volunteer fire companies.

Supervisors are counting on the study to help with decisions on the future of some fire agencies, as well as their own county department. The study, commissioned a year ago, was due May 1.

A draft released in late June by the consulting firm Matrix had several mistakes, including omitting fire stations and agencies in tables and maps, said Jim Colangelo, a fire services consultant for the county.

Limited information from the study was available to each regional group.

“It’s very disappointing,” Colangelo said.

The study is the latest in a long string of studies paid for by the county in the last several decades regarding improvements to the county’s fire service program. All called for large amounts of money and were mostly shelved.

Sonoma County is considered to lag in the fire industry’s statewide efforts to provide a sustainable service.

Jack Piccinini, fire chief of Rincon Valley and Windsor fire districts, pushed his counterparts Saturday to look at a bigger picture and start the complicated steps toward consolidating, rather than reaching for incremental fixes and losing the momentum and focus of supervisors.

“If we continue to operate individually we will not hold onto the attention of the board of supervisors. They will walk away,” Piccinini said.

Much of Saturday’s discussion revolved around how best to fill response gaps.

Ideas floated included a new station in Knights Valley on Highway 128, having San Antonio and Lakeville volunteer companies share a new station closer to Petaluma and adding paid staff to a Cazadero station to improve coast coverage.

In the north county, where fire officials have led the effort toward regional consolidation, efforts have stalled because of ongoing talks with the county about releasing tax dollars from the Geysers geothermal campus to a larger fire district covering the area.

Smaller steps underway include a Geyserville fire district-Knights Valley volunteers consolidation plan with the Local Agency Formation Commission, a county agency that determines boundaries and approves annexations of political entities including city and special districts, such as fire services.

For greater Santa Rosa, officials from Rincon Valley and Bennett Valley fire districts, and the Mountain Volunteer Company, which covers a stretch along busy Petrified Forest Road between northern Santa Rosa and Calistoga, agreed Saturday to discuss consolidation with their boards.

They also discussed the need for a new station west of Santa Rosa, staffing a remodeled Mountain station, remodeling a Rincon Valley station in southern Santa Rosa and assigning 27 firefighters to the area.

While several chiefs have expressed reluctance toward consolidation, Mountain Fire Chief Loren Davis said he liked the idea.

“It’s getting better coverage to people I’m trying to protect,” Loren said.

Progress toward consolidation will occur faster in regions of the county where the combination of fire agencies include fewer volunteer companies, said fire officials.

“There are some zones that are easier to deal with and some will need more time,” said Gold Ridge Fire Chief Dan George, referring to areas with a single volunteer fire company.

George’s area includes greater Sebastopol, Bodega Bay and volunteer companies of Bodega, Valley Ford and Two Rock, who have agreed to the concept of eventual consolidation.

Copyright 2017 The Press Democrat

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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