Fire and medical emergency service providers are facing a “quickly deteriorating ability” to provide adequate levels of fire protection and medical aid in western Sonoma County, according to a county report out this month.
An aging population and a booming tourism industry are driving up demand for medical emergency responses, especially along the lower Russian River and Sonoma Coast, according to the West County Fire and Emergency Municipal Services Review (MSR) conducted by LAFCO, the Sonoma County Local Agency Formation Commission.
The lower Russian River’s substantial homeless population is also creating “major” demands on medical emergency services, says the report, which looks at all nine west county fire and community service districts plus the city of Sebastopol and five small volunteer fire companies from Bloomfield to Fort Ross.
The report outlines major changes — mainly district consolidations — on the horizon for fire and ambulance districts looking at rising costs and uncertain funding.
The 182-page report continues three years of ongoing efforts to improve efficiencies in fire and emergency services throughout Sonoma County.
The Russian River Fire Protection District directors last week voted to seek annexation into the larger Sonoma County Fire District (SCFD), which formed this year through the consolidation of several central Sonoma County fire districts. Talks continue on expanding SCFD to eventually include the Monte Rio, Camp Meeker, Cazadero and Forestville Fire Districts and possibly Bodega Bay, said LAFCO Executive Officer Mark Bramfitt.
Bramfitt said he’s talking with SCFD Fire Chief Mark Heine this week about the further expansion of the SCFD’s future “sphere of influence,” which means “a plan for the probable physical boundaries and service area” of a local public service agency.
A sphere of influence “includes an area adjacent to a jurisdiction where development might be reasonably expected to occur in the next 20 years,” says the MSR report.
LAFCO continues to study potential west county sphere of influence amendments, said Bramfitt. For example there are five western Sonoma County volunteer fire companies that “need to be reorganized with neighboring district partners within the next two years,” says the new municipal service review.
Bodega Bay district bears an unfair burden
Bodega Bay’s fire and ambulance district serves approximately 1,200 local residents but also protects an estimated 4 million annual visitors to its service area. Approximately 80% of its calls for fire and medical emergency services come from visitors, according to the MSR.
Bodega Bay’s ambulance service is also used by a portion of northern Marin County, the communities of Valley Ford, Bloomfield, Bodega, Gold Ridge, Occidental, Monte Rio (including Jenner), Timber Cove “and even central Sonoma County,” says the report, but none of those areas pay Bodega Bay Fire Protection District taxes.
At the same time, Bodega Bay’s fulltime paid firefighter jobs are increasingly hard to fill owing to better pay levels elsewhere coupled with the district’s high cost of housing. Career firefighters “cannot afford to live within the district,” says the MSR. The Bodega Bay district “has been forced to increase salary rates in an attempt to attract and retain employees.”
Despite raises, recent hires have had tenures as short as three weeks “as candidates seek more lucrative positions at other Sonoma County or Bay Area agencies.”
Bodega Bay has the highest parcel tax charges for fire services in Sonoma County and possibly in the state at $524 per single-family residence, says the MSR.
The urge to merge
In Guerneville last week the Russian River Fire Protection District voted to merge into the newer and larger Sonoma County Fire District (SCFD) under an annexation.
“I’m confident it’s the right thing to do to keep costs manageable for district residents,” said Russian River Fire Protection District President Jason Weaver prior to the vote.
“There are almost 40 fire and emergency service agencies in the county, if you include volunteer fire companies (the companies are part of a “county service area” administered by the Board of Supervisors),”says LAFCO’s website addressing fire services.
“While these agencies do a great job of providing mutual aid to each other, service levels and quality are slipping, particularly in rural and remote parts of the county.
“Most of the agencies serving unincorporated areas rely wholly or almost entirely on volunteers rather than paid employees. The ranks of volunteers have declined over time — people don’t often work in the community they live in — and meeting increasingly demanding training requirements presents another obstacle to attracting new recruits.
“Many agencies recognize that they need to transition to a paid professional workforce in order to maintain service levels.
“In particular, agencies need to be able to respond to calls within a reasonable time frame, with the right number of qualified staff, and with the right equipment in hand.
“Transitioning to a paid workforce is really beyond the capabilities of volunteer fire companies and many fire protection districts — not just financially (though that is a huge challenge), but also from an administrative and leadership perspective. It is no small matter to manage paid professionals, and a model of larger, regional agencies would be better-suited to meet community needs.”