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Calif. county to consolidate volunteer FDs for enhanced efficiency, training

Beginning in July, the county’s nine individual volunteer departments will be placed into the hierarchy of the Napa County Fire Department

CAL FIRE/Napa County Fire Department

CAL FIRE/Napa County Fire Department

By Edward Booth
The Press Democrat

NAPA, Calif. — Napa County’s volunteer fire departments will soon be consolidated under a new plan to create a single chain of command.

Beginning in July, the county’s nine individual volunteer departments will be placed into the hierarchy of the Napa County Fire Department, a move that county fire staff say will allow for improved communication, as well as standardized policies and procedures.

The change is to ensure the volunteer departments are more supported and prepared, according to county fire staff.

Among the organizational changes, the volunteer chief position at each volunteer station is being replaced by the lead captain, a position that would report to one of the county’s battalion chiefs. Three battalion chiefs will each oversee three of the volunteer stations.

The county fire department is also set to enact agreements with individual volunteer firefighters instead of with the volunteer departments. That will standardize the payment system, and cut down on administrative work the volunteer departments have to do, according to county fire staff.

David Shew, the county’s fire administrator, said at the Napa County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday the new structure creates a “very clear” chain of command. That will also help the county achieve consistency in policies and procedures across the departments and make sure everybody is properly trained, he said.

“Overall, at the end of the day, this is really all about public safety,” Shew said.

The county has a long history of volunteer firefighting, he said, dating back to the 1800s. The current structure began to take shape in 1973, when the county struck an agreement for paid fire services, augmented by volunteer fire departments, with what’s now known as Cal Fire .

“In essence, that structural organization has remained largely intact up until today,” he said.

But, Shew said, conversations about the need for a change have been ongoing for over two decades. The county’s fire master plan and four Napa County Civil grand jury reports — the most recent was released in 2023 — all identified “a real need to make this structural organizational change,” Shew said.

A growing number of state safety regulations and guidelines have prompted the county to push for the changes to happen this year, he said.

Public commenters gave a mixed response on the changes. The supervisors generally said they thought the changes were needed, but said the department needed to be flexible as the changes came into effect.

Chris Morisoli, a fire captain for the Rutherford volunteer department, said he was concerned about what he saw as the effective demotion of volunteer fire chiefs, given the new lead captain position would be organizationally below a battalion chief.

He said the volunteer chiefs and their departments have specific knowledge of their communities that Cal Fire leadership lacks. Morisoli said he thought the demotion would have a negative effect on recruiting and retention, which could result in the county needing more paid staff.

“Volunteer fire department leadership must remain on par with the Cal Fire leadership, so the voices of the citizens we serve are heard,” Morisoli said.

Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said he recognized the possible benefits of the shift but was worried it may lead to a decline in attracting and retaining volunteers.

He said he would measure failure on the program on “if we get less volunteers volunteering, because it’s more bureaucratic.”

“I don’t believe the pay is an incentive,” he said. “The efficiency in how they’re able to do the job and the service, to me, is the primary motivator.”

The design of the revamped structure, according to Shew, is intended to ease the burden on the volunteer departments, rather than add bureaucratic demands. For instance, he said, the individual stipend system will cut down on the work the departments do to figure out pay, given that it will be managed through the county.

Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos said she felt the shift was a long-time coming, and that the new command structure will help in times of emergencies.

Currently, she said, the volunteer departments and county fire aren’t on the same page, and the changes will ensure volunteers coming in are successful in deploying out resources to Napa’s communities.

“When we catch a fire, when we have a flood, we need to know who’s the chief and who’s not the chief, who is able to act on behalf of the chief, and who is not able to act on behalf of the chief,” Ramos said. “That structure is incredibly important.”

In the video below, Lexipol co-founder and risk management expert Gordon Graham addresses the importance of volunteer firefighters. According to Graham, “a fire does not care if you’re a volunteer or a full-time career firefighter.”


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