Supervisors authorize contracts for year-round fire protection to unserved and underserved areas

Supervisors authorize contracts foryear-round fire protection to unserved and underserved areas

6 October 2005

published by TheVillage News

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors authorized the director of the county’s Department of Purchasing and Contracting to negotiate with the California Department of Forestry and with volunteer fire agencies and other fire departments to provide contracts to improve fire protection and emergency response services.

The 4-0 vote September 20, with Supervisor Ron Roberts absent on a trade mission, also establishes $5,030,000 of 2004-05 general fund balance for the contracts and authorizes the establishment of seven additional Department of Planning and Land Use positions to provide direct support for the fire service program.

“This is a historic step for the County of San Diego,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “This beefs up our weakest link, therefore it makes our region stronger.”

Since the October 2003 fires in San Diego County, the supervisors have taken several steps to minimize the effects of future fires. Clearance and weed abatement ordinances, building code standards, the acquisition of two helicopters and communications improvements are among the efforts.

“In some cases,” said DPLU building division chief Ivan Holler, “equipment, maintenance and supplies are inadequate and service levels need to be improved.”

The Insurance Services Office (ISO) rates communities based on fire protection. ISO 1 is the best service while ISO 10 designates no fire agency or service. Residential fire insurance rates for ISO 1 through ISO 7 are the same, but most backcountry areas are rated ISO 9 through ISO 10. Many residents in areas rated ISO 10 cannot obtain fire insurance.

“We have a significant part of the county that is precluded from buying fire insurance,” said Supervisor Greg Cox.

DeLuz and Pala are among the communities with an ISO 10 rating.

DeLuz also has a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection station. Assuming that agreement among all parties is reached, “Amador contracts” with CDF will provide year-round coverage at nine CDF stations including the DeLuz station. Contracts with seven volunteer fire departments, including the DeLuz Volunteer Fire Department, would also be initiated along with contracts for six county service areas and for the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District and three municipal water districts which provide fire protection in Pauma Valley.

The contracts would provide for vehicle maintenance, structure maintenance, training, worker’s compensation and other insurance, dispatch services and engine acquisition. The money saved by the local fire agencies from no longer paying those expenses could be used for additional staffing or other resources.

The action is separate from a proposal before the Local Agency Formation Commission which would consolidate fire departments. The contracts would be voluntary for each county service area (which has an advisory board, although the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is the official governing board) and volunteer fire department. County officials noted that the county service areas and volunteer fire departments would still maintain an important role, and since fire departments in CDF wildland responsibility areas are already under CDF command in the event of a wildfire the contract would not deprive those agencies of any authority.

Under the contracts no area in the county would have an ISO 10 rating. DeLuz would improve to ISO 8 while Pala would improve to ISO 9. Potrero and Dulzura would improve from ISO 9 to ISO 7. Although ISO 8 is still considered underserved, insurance would be more available.

“I’m ecstatic about the proposal. I’m extremely pleased,” Jacob said. “I feel very strongly that what’s before the board today is just a tremendous opportunity.”

Bob Copper, the deputy chief administrative officer for the county’s Land Use and Environment Group (which includes DPLU), believes that the contracts can be in place by October. “I think we can get these done in record time,” he said. “The idea is to have an effect this fire season.”

The contracts will not disrupt the LAFCO consolidation process, nor will it delay the county’s proposal for a long-term funding solution. “This is a quick way to supply extra protection to a very, very unprotected area,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.

The contracts would improve fire protection in 41 percent of the unincorporated area. “This is not the final solution, and I think we all realize this,” Jacob said. “This certainly is a major step in providing service.”

Jacob noted that the county’s mission is to improve the lives and safety of the citizens the supervisors represent. “This proposal is but a first step of county involvement in one of the most significant issues,” she said. “It’s just an awesome, awesome opportunity to see the county step up to the plate.”

The volunteer fire departments tentatively favor the proposal contingent on not losing service. “We support this measure or this proposal. However, it does not come without creating some concerns,” said Cary Coleman, the fire chief of the Intermountain Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department.

Coleman, who spoke on behalf of several Zone 8 volunteer departments, noted that the documentation he received did not provide clear mention of departments which are not county service areas and that it was not inclusive of all volunteer fire departments. He noted that the three Pauma Valley water districts already have existing Amador contracts and paid personnel while the Pine Valley district which relies heavily upon volunteers was not included (Pine Valley is already ISO 6, and the proposal sought to focus on areas which would have the greatest impact).

The desire for immediate action led to a quick process, and Coleman also noted that the limited input from fire departments, as well as the limited material presented to fire departments, raised some concerns. He noted that the county had not requested data to determine current levels of service and current needs.

“The document was just basically thrust upon us,” Coleman said of the county’s presentation to rural fire chiefs.

“There was a need to move expeditiously, sure,” Coleman said.

“They should have given us the board letter that night and answered our questions.”

Coleman also noted that CDF provides wildland fire engines, while ISO considers structural fire engines rather than wildland engines when evaluating communities for ratings. He also expressed concern that CDF engines are subject to state direction and may be diverted for action elsewhere in the state rather than available for local structure fires.

“We are not trying to put you at odds with us. We just feel the need to bring these out,” Coleman said.

George Wood, the director of the Heartland Communications Authority which serves several East County agencies, noted that CDF’s responsibility is fire suppression rather than emergency medical service and asked for stipulations in the contracts that access to emergency medical service wouldn’t be lost.

The Jamul-Dulzura Community Planning Group unanimously favored four of the five recommendations before the supervisors but had concerns about the recommendation to create the additional DPLU positions. “The concern here is that our local fire department does not lose the ultimate say on individual projects within our community,” said Dan Neirincky, the chair of the Jamul-Dulzura Community Planning Group.

The North County Fire Protection District, which currently has an ISO 5 rating as well as paid staff, is not included in the improved coverage, but NCFPD fire chief Bill Metcalf is also the president of the San Diego Fire Districts Association. He noted that the three principles set forth for improvement called for a comprehensive plan for all areas, an assurance that any plan will not result in degradation of service for any area, and sustainable funding. “It does not match up on all three of those principles,” he said of the specifics of the county’s proposal.

Metcalf urged that the plan be modified to meet all three goals. “We applaud you for this step in that direction today,” he said.

“This is one step, although a good step, in what will be many needed steps,” said David Ott, the fire chief for the City of Solana Beach and the vice-president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association.

“This is a huge help. It’s not the answer, I know it’s not the answer, but it’s a stopgap,” said Mary Schoepfer, the chair of the County Service Area No. 111 [Boulevard] advisory committee. “We need this, and we need the help.”

David Nissen, the fire chief of the San Diego County Rural Fire Protection District, noted that the funding would allow underfunded departments to focus on fire protection and life safety instead of fundraising.

Copper noted that the land use decisions of fire chiefs would not be affected, since the county has the ultimate land use authority while the fire agency comments are advisory — although for the most part heeded. “We like to rely on the fire chiefs,” he said. “We will continue to rely on them as we have.”

Since separate contracts for each area will be negotiated, the conditions may differ for various areas. “One of the strengths of this plan is the negotiations,” said Dale Geldert, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Geldert doesn’t envision any local fire chief losing authority. “We’ve always worked as a team in the field of firefighting,” he said. “I see no barriers for this to go forward.”

Geldert told the supervisors that all fire chiefs are considered as equals regardless of the size of their departments.

The retention of individual department authority doesn’t preclude some joint functions. “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to sit down with CDF and see how we can co-locate, co-train,” Cox said.

“This is a partnership,” Jacob said. “Negotiations and successful negotiations are the key.”

Jacob noted that 85 percent of calls to fire departments are for emergency medical service rather than fire suppression. “I do want to make sure that we’re talking about improving the level of service,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to take a step backward.”

Cox noted that the Cedar Fire of 2003 began in the unincorporated county and then spread into the cities of Poway and San Diego. The Laguna Fire of 1970 also crossed city limits, so Cox notes that better fire protection in the unincorporated area would also benefit city residents. “In essence the unincorporated area does become the first line of defense,” he said. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”

The authorized total contract amount is $5,030,000 while the projected annual salary and benefit costs are $588,000. Services, supplies and other start-up costs are projected to be $186,000.

Horn, whose district was hit by the Paradise Fire in October 2003, noted that in his district alone the county lost more than $5 million worth of guardrails. “This is a prudent move on the county’s part,” he said.

“I think this will help them a lot,” Horn said of the volunteer agencies. “These guys have a struggle every year to keep their doors open and keep serving us.”

Horn’s district includes the Sunshine Summit and Ranchita volunteer departments included in the contract plans, and he cited specific equipment which could improve the service of those departments. “They need satellite phones because 800 megahertz doesn’t always work in those isolated areas,” he said.

County chief administrative officer Walt Ekard said that the county had no desire to usurp the authority of local fire agencies. He also said that the county does not desire to reduce service in any area. “We’ll ensure that is the case as we go through the negotiation process,” he said.

Ekard explained that the short public notice allowed the program to be put into place as soon as possible. “The protection in San Diego County is going to be improved as the result of this action, and it’s going to be improved in the very near future,” he said. “We felt strongly that this is an area where we could step up.”

Supervisor Pam Slater-Price acknowledges that the board’s action is not the final answer but would have an impact. “We’re right in the middle of fire season,” she said. “We need to move forward fast.”

The contracts will be for no less than three years, and funding for future costs will be addressed in the proposed 2006-07 and 2007-08 budgets.

By Joe Naiman
Village News Correspondent


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