Fire Districts should support working group concept

By Union Democrat staff February 18, 2011 02:39 am
    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 voters?
    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 on.
    “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.