Twain Harte Fire and Rescue Chief Todd McNeal (left) and Mi-Wuk/Sugar Pine Fire Chief Randy Miller stand by a fire engine bearing the combined logos of the two fire protection districts. Maggie Beck/Union Democrat
Two local departments have been teaming up in recent months as part of a unique and informal partnership that has drawn praise from constituents and even the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury.
Chief officers for both the Mi-Wuk/Sugar Pine Fire Protection District and Twain Harte Fire and Rescue Department came to a handshake agreement last February to combine forces when responding to calls, while at the same time allowing each to maintain administrative and financial autonomy.
"We're maintaining our individuality in reference to our district," said Mi-Wuk/Sugar Pine Fire Chief Randy Miller. "However, we're combining operationally to better serve the community."
What this means is that residents in both districts can expect more than double the manpower to show up at each call for service.
Now, each district keeps three firefighters on duty at all times, which includes one paid captain and two interns who are paid stipends that can range from $600 to $1,200 each month. Both engine companies respond to all calls in the two districts as part of the agreement.
"The fact that fire doubles in size every minute makes time of the essence," said Miller. "Being able to throw sufficient manpower on a fire can make the outcome more beneficial."
The effort toward "operational integration" between the two independent districts is unprecedented in the county, Miller noted.
One of the toughest challenges local districts have faced over the years has been the recruitment, training and retainment of skilled volunteer firefighters, Miller said, so the new pact was formed to help address the issue.
A 2010 study of the county's fire and first responder system found that the number of active volunteer firefighters had dropped from more than 200 decades ago to 74. The study found that the decrease led to less support at paid fire stations, diminished response at volunteer fire stations and the closure of several volunteer stations.
Twain Harte Fire and Rescue Chief Todd McNeal was hired by the Twain Harte Community Services District last October to fill the vacant position left open since 2007, and quickly identified the department's staffing issues.
He later convinced the district's board of directors to expend an additional $20,000 each year for an internship program with firefighters from Columbia College. It's now a coordinated program with the Mi-Wuk/Sugar Pine station.
"The number of active volunteers has dropped over the years and relying on that system will put you behind the curve," McNeal said.
But the cooperation between the two departments goes beyond just emergency response.
Prior to McNeal's hiring, the Twain Harte district received a federal grant worth $225,000 for the purchase of a new fire engine. McNeal decided to lease an older six-seater, four-wheel drive engine that would have otherwise collected dust to the Mi-Wuk/Sugar Pine district, which was in need of a engine for winter operations.
"For no impact to their budget whatsoever, they get an engine and it's just a phone call away when I need it," McNeal said.
The leased engine is now emblazoned with the emblems of both departments and a quote that reads: "Community protection through cooperating agencies."
The Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury in its 2011-2012 report provided an update on recommendations for improving the county's fire services made the previous year.
The jury suggested in 2011 to consolidate the nine full-time staffed departments and roughly 10 volunteer fire stations in the county, but that recommendation was met with resistance.
In the latest report, the grand jury said it wouldn't further discuss consolidation but found "areas where progress is being made," citing the partnership efforts at the Mi-Wuk/Sugar Pine and Twain Harte fire departments.
"They schedule together and share assets which include management," the report stated. "The departments involved believe this collaboration results not only in financial savings but a more effective and efficient response to major incidents when both departments are summoned."
McNeal acknowledged the potential service improvements a countywide system could provide, but resolving the issues among the independent districts to pave the way for consolidation would likely take long time.
"There's no question that if we went to a countywide service then the services provided would be greater, but we didn't want to wait," he said. "We wanted to perfect change right now."