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How the County  is getting smarter about its Fire Districts

Posted on August 10, 2019 by Susan Gorin

The two-year anniversary of our firestorms is approaching. Since October 2017 it has become apparent that our communities’ needs for fire safety have changed. In response, the organization of our Fire Districts must change as well.

There are currently 35 fire departments in Sonoma County. Each fire department or fire district has its own governance structure, its own Fire Chief, its own staffing, and its own emergency equipment. This can result in significant duplication of resources and an inefficient use of taxpayer money.  Historically, many departments were volunteer only. Volunteer firefighters are important, especially in rural areas, but as the demands for service increase, our volunteers cannot do it alone. Calls for service have increased dramatically – for example, Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue received 4,000 calls in 2014, which increased to 5,500 in 2018. This is more than a 30 percent increase in just four years. Ideally, departments would run with a mix of career firefighters and volunteers.

Fire districts rely on property taxes for 90 percent of their revenue. The devastating fires of 2017 resulted in significant destruction of residential, commercial, and retail structures, thus wiping them off the tax rolls or significantly reducing tax revenue. This loss of revenue can result in significant reductions in staffing, affecting the number of firefighters that are available to respond to a given emergency. 

We’ve seen consolidation work before. The recent formation of the Sonoma County Fire District through the consolidation of four existing districts (Rincon Valley, Windsor, Bennett Valley, and Mountain) is a good example. Administrative duplication was reduced, capital purchase needs were combined, and four separate fire agencies, each with their own Fire Chief and administration, became a single Fire Chief and one department administration. Duplication of equipment was eliminated and finances were combined.  All these steps have ensured that the Sonoma County Fire District can better meet their commitment to the community by delivering high quality and cost-effective service to residents.

A similar effort is underway in the Sonoma Valley. Sonoma Valley Fire itself is actually the result of a contract for services about 20 years ago – the City of Sonoma fire department joined with the Valley of the Moon fire department, creating the now existent Sonoma Valley Fire which serves the City of Sonoma and Springs regions.

An additional contract with the Glen Ellen Fire Department was implemented in 2017, adding Glen Ellen to the area served by Sonoma Valley Fire. Before this contract, the Glen Ellen station was volunteer run and was not staffed all the time. Now, after contracting with Sonoma Valley Fire, it is staffed 24/7 including holidays with at least two firefighters, one of whom is a paramedic. Since its formation, response times for Sonoma Valley Fire have improved. Sonoma Valley Fire has also been able to hire full-time support positions including a Fire Marshal, Training Officer, and Fire Mechanic, all of whom improve service and reduce costs in the long run.

Earlier this year, the valley moved closer to consolidation when Sonoma Valley Fire, Mayacamas Volunteer Fire, Glen Ellen Fire, Kenwood Fire, and Shell-Vista Volunteer Fire officially requested a Municipal Services Review through the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). The results of this review are expected later this year. After completion of the review, the agencies can then apply to LAFCO for “reorganization” (consolidation) which, if approved, will kick off the formal notification of residents in the area. There will be opportunity for community engagement and feedback throughout this process, with the protest period providing an opportunity for affected residents to formally object to the action. 

Moving towards a regional approach where fire districts are based on geography will create more efficient, better-resourced departments that are able to more effectively serve their communities. It will take a fair amount of discussion and planning to get there, but that work is already underway in the Valley, and elsewhere around our County. 

 



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