Volunteer fire depts. still have big role
Last updated 6/7/2007 at Noon
The reorganization of 12 fire departments which was tentatively approved May 7 by San Diego County’s Local Agency Formation Commission will include territory currently served by six volunteer fire departments, including the De Luz Volunteer Fire Department, but the volunteer fire departments will retain their autonomy and may be working in conjunction with the legal fire protection and emergency medical services agency.
“There will be service provided to the territory, and the first option is for the current service providers to sign contracts to continue that service,” said LAFCO consultant John Traylor.
The creation of the reorganized fire service agency will return to the LAFCO board for ratification after finalization of details transferring property tax revenue while maintaining expenditures from voter-approved assessments within the levy collection area. The reorganization would merge six fire agencies and territory currently served by six volunteer fire departments into a zone of the existing County Service Area formed to provide regional communications.
Although the territory of the volunteer fire departments would become part of the consolidated agency, the six volunteer fire departments themselves would not be merged. “The volunteers are a private enterprise,” Traylor said.
Volunteer fire departments have the status of private non-profit organizations. Because they are not public agencies, the territory served by the volunteer fire departments is legally considered “unserved area.” Traylor notes that the unserved area designation doesn’t mean that the territory is entirely without service. “That’s been kind of misleading and disruptive,” he said.
The recognition of volunteer fire departments as private entities was one of the reasons LAFCO opted for a County Service Area zone governed by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors rather than a regional fire protection district with directly-elected board members. A County Service Area is not restricted from contracting with a private volunteer company for fire protection services while the state’s Public Contract Code specifically prohibits a fire protection district from contracting with volunteer companies.
“They will be invited to sign contracts with the new agency,” Traylor said of the volunteer departments. “It’s their option whether to do that or not.”
The other reason for the choice of a County Service Area governed by the Board of Supervisors was that much of the funding for fire protection services to many of the included agencies is derived from a County of San Diego program and a CSA would give the supervisors oversight. The Board of Supervisors approved a total of $8.5 million for contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to augment service in areas not adequately protected in September 2005 and June 2006. That fire protection enhancement program includes contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and with volunteer fire departments as well as with fire protection districts.
The contracts between the volunteer fire departments and the new regional agency would supplement the volunteer fire departments with a higher level of first responder, most likely a paramedic rather than a firefighter. “The whole concept is not to reduce any current level of service but to enhance it,” Traylor said.
The number of volunteer fire departments whose territory is covered in the reorganization was reduced from initial plans when the Warner Springs Volunteer Fire Department was dissolved during Summer 2006. The Sunshine Summit Volunteer Fire Department has taken over coverage of Warner Springs and the Warner Springs Ranch Resort has a private fire brigade which serves the resort exclusively, but the regional agency acts as protection against the dissolution of any of the remaining volunteer fire departments. “If any other entity dissolves the CSA will take responsibility for providing service to that territory,” Traylor said.
Even with professional staff, the fire departments will still need community-based volunteers. “The whole concept is to encourage them to stay in place,” Traylorsaid. “We want to encourage and assist in all ways to keep that component in place.”
Although the volunteer fire departments will be affiliated with the county department only through voluntary contract agreements, the residents of that territory will be under the county agency. “They will fall under one governance. That is a County Service Area governance,” Traylor said.
County Service Area No. 135, the San Diego County Regional Communications System, was formed in 1994 to provide the authority and financial framework to institute the 800 megahertz radio communications system used for public safety and other public service. The RCS allows emergency and public safety agencies to communicate with each other and includes various cities as well as the entire unincorporated area of San Diego County. The regional fire agency will be a zone of CSA No. 135.
Although the San Diego County Board of Supervisors acts as the official governing body of all County Service Areas, each CSA has an advisory board of local residents. “There will be a similar advisory board for that portion of the CSA,” Traylor said.