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District 1 Update September 2015
Jack Duran, Supervisor District 1

Fire Service Issues

Although my district is primarily suburban and industrial, there is a pretty good swath of wildlands on the western edge. We were reminded of that a few weeks ago when an arson fire burned more than 400 acres near the Sacramento/Placer county border. Fire crews from multiple state and local agencies worked together and quickly got the fire under control.

As is the case across the state, almost all neighboring fire agencies have mutual assist agreements so personnel and equipment from one agency can assist on an emergency in another district. A couple decades ago, that wasn’t the case. The Oakland hills firestorm in 1991 made that clear when fire crews from different districts responded to the conflagration and faced equipment compatibility problems. Their hoses couldn’t connect to local fire hydrants and the Oakland Fire Department’s radios couldn’t access frequencies used by other departments. The bottom line was that they couldn’t work together and the public suffered.

Those were painful lessons from a fire that took 25 lives and burned more than 3,000 homes and apartments. But those compatibility issues are gone; fire agencies can now seamlessly work emergencies in another district with a singular goal: to provide the best and most efficient service to those who need it.

Here in Placer County, there are some 19 independent fire districts and agencies. Most of the districts are independently funded and operate with autonomy. While this model has worked for a long time, it is failing. Smaller, independent districts are struggling financially, some to the point of insolvency. A couple districts have already folded and their responsibilities were absorbed by Placer County Fire.

In the past, fire agencies put out fires. Period. Now, an overwhelming number of calls are for medical aid, with a few fires thrown in. To meet the changing needs, districts have had to alter the way they do business.  And they’re going to have to change again. They’re going to have to figure out a way to work with other districts. The days of small, independent fire districts are numbered and we need to come up with a solution to this problem. Simply throwing money at flailing districts is akin to fiddling while Rome burns. 

The bottom line is that some sort of consolidation is needed; the fiefdom mentality needs to go. We need to capitalize on the economy of scale where revenues can be combined and management and personnel can be shared throughout the districts. While I’m sure some will disagree with this next statement, reducing redundant positions will reduce costs. 

Placer County has commissioned a study to look at the feasibility of consolidation. That is part of a long-term solution that will apply countywide. I don’t know what that solution is going to look like and perhaps those districts that can stand on their own financially will continue to do so. However, those that cannot bring their revenues in line with their expenses need to consider a new way of doing business. 

The county is not a veritable cornucopia of cash to bail out every flailing district that’s mired in a dated organizational model that longer works. However, if we are expected to contribute to the solution, then we are going to have a say in how that solution looks. 

I would ask that all parties involved in this issue keep an open mind and come to the table with the goal of working out solutions. It’s in the best interest of the public. After all, they pay for the service and we should never forget that emergency services should always benefit those in need. 

As always, it is an honor and a privilege to serve you. I always welcome your feedback and can be reached by e-mail at jduran@placer.ca.gov or by phone at 916-787-8950.

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