Sonoma County Fire Chief Al Terrell, brought in three years ago by the Board of Supervisors to help guide big changes that could reshape the purpose and look of the county’s Fire and Emergency Services Department, announced Wednesday he intends to resign at the end of July, before any of those changes are rolled out.
The planned departure of the county’s top fire chief comes as supervisors and fire officials countywide face options this year that could result in the 11 remaining volunteer fire companies leaving county administration and a stronger push toward consolidating the county’s 37 public fire agencies.
Terrell, 57, announced his resignation in emails to fire chiefs, supervisors, staff and county administrators.
Last month, Terrell expressed hope the county department would continue to play a strong role in fire services and that he’d remain to help facilitate the path toward fewer regional fire agencies.
In an interview Wednesday, he said he’d since realized it was time to go.
“I think I’ve gone as far as I can go. It’s time for someone with a little more energy and ability to move things to the next level,” Terrell said. He has worked in firefighting for nearly 32 years and previously served as fire chief in West Sacramento.
His tenure in Sonoma County has been marked with sharp criticism from several of the county’s three-dozen-plus fire chiefs, including volunteer fire officials he oversees, who’ve voiced disappointment in his leadership at a key time.
With Terrell on the way out, many wondered about the fate of the county’s fire services strategy and the central question being asked these days: Should the county stay active in rural firefighting services or begin backing out?
“With all the things we’re trying to do in the county with the volunteer companies, are those put on hold?” asked Wilmar volunteer Chief Mike Mickelson, whose fire company is administered by Terrell.
“The question is do they (supervisors) bring somebody else in or look to restructure?” Mickelson asked. “It may clear up a few things. A lot of people felt the chief wasn’t doing enough for us and so maybe there will be several people who are pretty excited about this.”
In the past two years, supervisors have acknowledged the county has financially shortchanged rural firefighting services for years and pledged more money in exchange for consolidation efforts.
Terrell’s retirement will come four months short of his contract end date. Last year he was up for a three-year extension, but supervisors gave him one year before requiring another review. Volunteer fire officials last year made clear their critical assessment of Terrell to supervisors.
Supervisors and Terrell, though, said the shorter contract term was due to possible changes to the county’s firefighting landscape and a new county administrator who still was getting to know her department heads at the time.
“There’s a lot of work now to be done but the stage is set for some very progressive things,” Terrell said.
He took over in late 2013 at a county department entering its fourth decade in operation, one of more than 40 fire agencies countywide. County government was on the cusp of a new round of lengthy studies aimed at figuring out a future vision for fire services and addressing longstanding distrust among fire district officials in the county department.