Union Democrat staff

They are the heart of local control.

With their elected boards and largely local funding, Tuolumne County's fire districts are the essence of taxation with representation. Board members and constituents are often friends or neighbors and, at least ideally, trust and communication prevail.

So you can understand why leaders of a few of our districts are skittish about being part of a joint powers agreement aimed at improving fire protection countywide.

"It's not going to work," said Charles Wagner, a Mi-Wuk-Sugar-Pine Fire District board member. "It's going to be a failure from the get go."

Yes, there are valid questions: Will our districts lose their autonomy?

Their independence? Or even their funds - like those which will be

raised by a parcel tax approved last year by Mi-Wuk-Sugar Pine District


County Administrator Craig Pedro has promised that existing boards

and boundaries would remain intact, minimizing the downside. Cost

sharing and a new command structure, however, would be among issues on

table. But without the assent of district boards, however, none of it

could happen.

The bottom line, however, is that the deterioration of the county's fire service demands a solution.

District directors and administrators are asked only to join a

"working group" set up to look at the proposed fire and first-responder

options. No final decisions or full commitments are asked; just open

minds, a willingness to listen and and eye on the greater good.

The status quo, even the most charitable of observers will concede, is not good.

Paid staffing is barely enough to keep some stations open.

Volunteer counts have plummeted from more than 200 two decades ago to

just 74 today, and some all-volunteer stations can answer but a small

fraction of the calls they receive.

Due to the somewhat haphazard location of fire and ambulance

stations, coverage and response times around the county vary widely.

Not only that, but high costs and dropping revenues have created a

funding crisis. This year county fire agencies will run a combined

deficit of nearly $600,000, a number that will only worsen as time goes


"It isn't working," understated Tuolumne County Supervisor Dick Pland at Tuesday's session,

That's why Pedro held series of meetings over the past year on

county's fire and first responder capabilities. In polls of chiefs and

firefighters connected with those meetings, formation of a JPA was

voted the most practical solution.

Its upsides are significant: cooperation among districts and

departments, consistent training standards and better planning for

ambulance and fire station locations to reduce response times.

But the search for a solution, pointed out Supervisor Randy

Hanvelt, must be an "all-in game" free of "turf wars" and internal

squabbles that could undermine the effort.

Closing the door now, before the working group is formed or holds

its first meeting makes no sense. Instead, our districts and

departments should look at this the ultimate exercise in mutual aid.

Except this time the mission is more than saving a burning

building. If trust and communication indeed do prevail, those districts

and departments could build and be part of a stronger and more

effective countywide force of firefighters and first responders.