The way Tuolumne County provides fire protection services is not sustainable without changes that could prove to be controversial, according to a new independent study that will be discussed at a public meeting on Tuesday.
There was a shortfall of more than $1.5 million in the county’s overall fire protection system in 2017 that was expected to grow to more than $2 million by 2022, the study determined.
At the same time, the study found that close to one-third of the county’s fleet of fire engines and water tenders were more than 25 years old and needed to be replaced within the next three to five years at a total cost of between $5.4 million and $7.5 million.
The county Board of Supervisors will hold a special meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday to discuss the study, which was developed over the course of more than two years by a consulting firm based in San Francisco with input from county officials and fire chiefs.
“Our current model isn’t working,” said Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank, who oversaw the team that provided input on the study. “This is a serious issue, and we just need to have some conversations moving forward.”
A decline in property values due to the 2008 economic recession, increasing prices for equipment and a greater reliance on paid staff as opposed to volunteer firefighters were reasons cited for the current financial situation.
Frank said there are less volunteer firefighters than in the past due to the county’s aging population and more demanding state requirements to become one.
Currently, the county contracts with Cal Fire to staff and manage the Tuolumne County Fire Department and its 10 stations for about $4 million per year. Each is staffed around the clock by one fire captain and one fire engineer, though the study says ideally there would be three dedicated personnel.
There are also eight independent fire districts, which each have their own chief and elected governing board — not including the City of Sonora and Tuolumne Rancheria fire department, which the study recommends should remain independent from the county’s efforts.
The study’s recommendation was to form a countywide fire district that could potentially contract with the various departments, districts and Cal Fire to provide service. This would allow the county to allocate funding to each district based on the number of calls for service, according to the study.
However, the study was short on details or options on how to best go about setting up a countywide district.
“My speculation is that they list a very detailed direction on the implementation for this model because there’s more than one way of going about establishing a countywide fire district,” Frank said.
In 2017, the Board of Supervisors hired the Matrix Consulting Group for nearly $70,000 to conduct the latest study.
Previous studies conducted in-house by county officials in 2010 and 2012 leaned toward consolidating all of the districts and departments into a single, centralized fire agency, though fire chiefs and people in the districts pushed back against the idea.
Each of the districts are primarily funded by property taxes from the residents who live within their boundaries.
The latest study didn’t recommend getting rid of the contract with Cal Fire and consolidating all of the districts into a standalone county fire department because the cost would be close to $9 million, which is almost $1 million more than now when the budgets of all departments and districts are combined.
Frank likened the debate to the longstanding one over the consolidation of the various school districts in the county, which proponents say would save money by reducing the number of school superintendents receiving high salaries and benefits for overseeing a relatively small number of students, but opponents say it would take away local control.
“Every district, every fire chief is so passionate and dedicated to what they’re doing and sometimes it’s hard to look past that,” she said. “People in the community might ask if we do some type of change, how can they know they’ll get the same level of service?”
Fire chiefs have already pushed back against the latest study’s conclusions.
Jerry McGowan, president of the Tuolumne County Fire Chiefs Association, penned a response letter on behalf of the group that stated the final study did not meet their expectations because they believe many data points, analyses, and delivery options are flawed.
McGowan did not go into detail in the letter about the perceived flaws and could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Frank said another point of contention was related to findings on processing fire-related calls for service, which are handled by Cal Fire in San Andreas.
The study found that the average length of time between a call and dispatching units in 2016 was one-minute and 56 seconds, which was 52 seconds longer than the national standard.
Josh White, chief of Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, disputed the data because the area’s current dispatch system is more about tracking resources than tracking times.
White said a unit may already be en route to an incident but they aren’t logged as such until a dispatcher does a “call back” over the radio and the unit responds.
“The important thing is to get the information out to the responders and then do the check back process.,” he said. “The reality is that I could have been responding for three minutes. I could have jumped in my truck and started responding.”
Cal Fire is installing “automatic vehicle locating” technology in all of the state-owned that will better track times because the unit will only need to press a button to log when they are en route to a call.
“Now that times are becoming a more important criteria in defining how the fire service is doing, I’m really happy we’re going to these mobile digital locators and terminals in the vehicles,” White said.
The study also evaluated the county’s ambulance service, but didn’t recommend any changes to the existing system. The county owns the ambulances and stations while contracting with Manteca District Ambulance Service for staffing at about $3.5 million per year.
Frank said the goal of beginning the conversation on Tuesday is to hopefully determine a proposal for improving the system before the 2020 election, because changes would likely have to be approved by voters.
“We’re falling farther and farther in the hole, so something needs to happen,” said Frank, noting that the county’s proposed budget for fire service in the next fiscal year doesn’t have any money for replacing equipment.
“If we’re going to something countywide, if that’s what we do, it’s going to take a lot of energy and help from the community,” she said. If that doesn’t happen soon, there might be other actions that the county and independent districts need to take on their own to sustain themselves.”
Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat. com or (209) 588-4530.