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‘We’ve got to be prepared’: Supervisors boost fire staffing, recruitment

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More Sonoma County firefighters will be on duty this summer and fall during extreme weather and wind periods following a vote Monday by the Board of Supervisors approving $900,000 for additional staff.

Supervisors, citing the need for action following last fall’s catastrophic and deadly October fires, also agreed to spend $800,000 to recruit and retain firefighters countywide in an attempt to bolster the flagging ranks of fire agency volunteers.

The $1.7 million already had been allocated in the county budget for fire services but Monday’s vote directed how it would be spent, based on recommendations from the county’s Fire Services Advisory Commission.

The county this year has given about $3.5 million to fire services. But that’s far short of what is needed to fill gaps in Sonoma County’s firefighting network, riddled with too many agencies, many with varying problems including diminishing budgets, aging engines and fewer volunteers. In some rural areas. neighboring departments pick up calls, extending response times.

Fire officials will ask supervisors later this summer to consider a far more costly plan aimed at bringing fire agencies countywide to more uniform standards, including putting paid staff in rural areas with a goal of 10‑minute response times. It’s estimated to cost more than $20 million annually and potentially far more.

County leaders have floated the idea of a sales tax increase, but some fire officials fear that could clash with efforts by five fire agencies planning or considering a property tax increase on the fall ballot.

“We need a system that is more than just a response to calls. It’s providing an insurance network throughout the county to make sure we’re prepared when bad things happen,” said Jim Colangelo, Sonoma County’s interim manager for fire and emergency services.

With last October’s catastrophic and deadly wildfires looming in memory and from the reports they face on a daily basis on housing, fire services and other county needs left in the fires’ aftermath, supervisors sounded unified in seeking faster action.

“I feel like we’re handing out ibuprofen when we need open heart surgery,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said, frustrated at the need, limited funding and time it likely will take to make major changes countywide to improve service. “The main questions now are ‘what would be a reasonable level of service in Sonoma County?’ and ‘how do we fund that and how do we fund that as quickly as we possibly can?’ ”

It’s time to quit cobbling together smaller fixes, Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.

“I know how I felt over the weekend with the warm high winds, looking at brown hills,” Zane said. “We’ve got to be prepared.”

Board Chair James Gore for months has said some kind of tax measure will be necessary to make the big fixes happen.

But Monday, he also favored progress by mirroring the county’s current plan for road work — not one‑time funding but pledging millions of dollars each year.

“We’ve built it into the budget people can count on.”

While supervisors and fire officials wrestle with longer-term fire needs, the “red flag” pilot program — which will place more firefighters on duty when warm winds arrive, humidity dips and temperatures soar — can be implemented immediately.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who outlined the program for supervisors, said the ability to staff more firefighters during worrisome weather will be key to getting out ahead of future blazes.

Chiefs can activate the program as soon as several weather issues converge. This week’s high temperatures aren’t expected to trigger the plan, as the forecast doesn’t include strong winds and low humidity.

The $900,000 was sitting in a county fund for fire agencies and in the past few weeks, fire officials determined its best use would be more staffing this fire season. But supervisor approval was needed before it could be spent.

Some agencies, such as Santa Rosa’s fire department, already increase staffing at times of heat, wind and low humidity. But most of the three dozen or so local agencies haven’t been able to afford that, instead bringing in added staffing after a fire breaks out.

Now fire officials will evaluate the week’s weather conditions every Monday on a conference call. If needed, each of the county’s seven fire regions would provide one or two added engines and firefighters for a local strike team.

The engines would be based at their home station but ready to fill in where needed.

The cost of such a program wasn’t known. The $900,000 was what remained of county money allocated for fire services and hadn’t yet been designated. As a pilot program, the cost and effectiveness will be evaluated after the fire season, officials said.

The new plan revises one used and paid for by local fire agencies years ago that ended in about 2010 because of cost, Gossner said.

The new recruitment money will give $100,000 to each fire region plus $100,000 for the volunteer fire companies, which are scattered countywide. Volunteers in some areas have increased following the fires, but fire chiefs have sought more money to entice and keep volunteers through more aggressive recruitment and stipends. The Board of Supervisors also were given updates on other fire agency‑related issues. With large wildland fires a pressing issue across California last year, fire leaders this spring asked state legislators for $100 million to help with increased staffing, including dispatchers, and to move equipment into likely fire areas when weather warranted. The state approved half the request, according to Gossner.

“I feel that it’s pathetic the state gave $50 million for 58 counties, given these fires and the billions they cost in damage, not to mention human beings lost,” Zane said. “Counties like us need a more significant piece of that pie.”

Sonoma County belongs to a mutual aid network of North Bay and Bay Area counties that typically respond to each other during big fires.

At a recent meeting of fire chiefs from much of the Bay Area, members struck an agreement to help each other quickly and directly this fire season outside of the state’s official mutual aid system, Gossner said.

“We’ll move resources much, much quicker in the future,” Gossner said.

Slow mutual aid from outside Sonoma County was a factor in October, officials have said.

Several fires burning at the same time in neighboring counties created competition for aid. Also, the state’s mutual aid system requires agencies wait for an official request to send help. Some fire chiefs earlier this year testified before state legislators they didn’t wait for permission to send engines into Sonoma County, hearing how bad the situation was.