County Approves Fire Agency Consolidation Plan
Friday, September 17, 2010
The County Board of Supervisors recently approved a plan to allocate $15 million annually towards the creation of a rural fire agency, and a rural fire protection plan.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): And on that note, let us move on because this week the County Board of Supervisors took some steps to beef up a plan linking fragmented rural fire agencies into more cohesion and perhaps more efficiency when fighting wildfires in the back county. And here we are coming up to October, so it’s three years ago, I believe, that we had those devastating wildfires, so we’re very aware of all this. Are these ideas of consolidating rural fire agencies important contributions to fire protection or just gestures to quiet the critics? And, Miriam, you’re with the East County Magazine back there in the back county. Before we get to those questions, give us some context. Why, first of all, is San Diego County without a county fire department? I think it’s unique in this regard.
MIRIAM RAFTERY (Editor, East County Magazine): Well, that’s a very good question. It’s, one might say, the burning issue for east county out there. Certainly they have said that they cannot afford it, it’s terribly expensive. The east county does include federal lands, state parklands, so, you know, that’s part of the issue but, nonetheless, some of the other major counties, you know, Los Angeles County, they certainly have that same issue and yet they manage to spend a whole lot more money on, you know, having a county fire department and actually hiring firefighters as part of that county department, which this plan, while it has many benefits, money for upgrades and equipment and fire bays and fire stations and so forth, it kind of dodges what some consider the big issue, which is money to pay the volunteer fighters should we have people on a voluntary basis risking their lives to fight these monster firefighters (sic). Should that be what a county this size relies on?
PENNER: Okay, I think you’ve jumped about ten steps ahead of me.
PENNER: That’s all right. You’ve already moved into what the county board did and probably one of the most notable things is that they gave $5 million to this new fire authority and, as you said, none of it goes to pay firefighters. John Warren, you wanted to respond to Miriam.
JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Yeah, I wanted to say what we have here with the county now is a Regional Fire Authority, which is about as close as San Diego County will come to a county fire department. You know, I’m a resident of east county for about 12 years until recently, and one of – the big issue is always politics. They don’t want to give up the rural fire districts or the volunteers. Those entities do not want to give. They don’t want to give the dollars that they have or the authority or control. That’s why we can’t consolidate the communications system out there. So it’s politics and now we – the compromise is this rural fire district that we have. The dollars that have been put there with it help in part but I guess our discussion will go into other elements of that.
PENNER: Well, yes, I think it will. But let – let’s go backwards just a little bit and let me turn to you, Ricky. The voters of San Diego County actually had a chance a couple of years ago to give the idea of a county fire department a big push and I know what happened and I think you know what happened. Tell us about it.
RICKY YOUNG (Watchdog Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, they said no sort of. As you and I were talking about just before the show, this required a two-thirds vote to pass and become a reality and it…
PENNER: It – it…
YOUNG: …involved a tax.
PENNER: It was what? You say…
YOUNG: There was a ballot measure on, you know, that would’ve taxed people and created a, I think, a more robust County Fire Authority. And it got, I think, 63% of the vote, if I remember. It needed 66. So you have sort of the minority wins in this case. And – But, nevertheless, when you have a special purpose tax in California, it requires the two-thirds vote and this did not get it. And…
PENNER: And it wasn’t a large tax, as I remember. It was a parcel tax. What was it? About…
YOUNG: I want to say it was about $48.00 a year, something like that. But…
PENNER: Was it that much, John?
WARREN: It wasn’t about the money. It was the politics. And it was the giving up of the authority that people in east county had to an entity. They didn’t have trust and confidence in Cal Fire and they weren’t ready to relinquish it and they have more cause than anyone because they were the most recent victims of the fire.
RAFTERY: Well, that’s right. And one of the concerns of people out there was that county budget cycles have, you know, lean and strong years and what happens if they relinquish that authority and you have a lean year and they decide they’re going to save some money by shutting down a fire station in your town, this sort of thing. So it is a very complex issue.
YOUNG: As I recall though, they had also just – in some of the key districts, they had also just passed their own tax to fund their own local fire protection and they didn’t want to pay for a countywide thing because that seemed like an extra layer to them.
PENNER: Okay, so what we have now is the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority. And that came into being rather recently, an act of the board of supervisors, I believe. The supervisors appointed a head, the first head, fire chief for the County Regional Fire Authority. There’s never been one before. His name is Howard Windsor, and he is from Cal Fire, the state fire protection agency. Let me ask our listeners about this. All right, so here we’re coming up to fire season. We do have something called a Regional Fire Authority. We now have somebody to head it up. Are you feeling more secure about our ability to deal with wildfires in the month ahead, assuming that the weather turns hot and dry. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Are you feeling more secure, Miriam?
RAFTERY: A little bit. A little bit, Gloria. But I don’t – my opinion is, I don’t think it goes far enough. Interestingly, Stephen Whitburn, who’s running for supervisor, testified at this…
PENNER: Against whom?
RAFTERY: He’s running against Ron Roberts and, you know, he testified that this was like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and he criticized them for sitting on $700 million in reserves and doling out only a pittance by, you know, in proportion, $5 million on this.
YOUNG: Yeah, I don’t have any opinion about whether there should or shouldn’t be a robust County Fire Authority but what I’ve sort of observed over the two and a half years I’ve been here is there’s sort of a series of news conferences that happen and the county gets very excited about steps and then when you look at it, like the action this week, I think the key things were, one, name this guy from Cal Fire to head the agency, but Cal Fire’s going to go on paying him. So the, you know, it sort of seems like a technical move at best, and then second, the action was to move it from the Planning Department to the Public Safety Department of the County, and, you know, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to put out a lot of fires to move it from one department to another.
YOUNG: It had already been approved a couple of years ago and there was a press conference then and, you know – but they are very excited about the step. If you go on the county website, there’s exclamation points on a couple of the items there, so they’re very excited about it. But it, you know, when they’re spending like $5 million or, I guess eventually maybe it’s going to be $15 million, it just seems very small compared to like the $182 million spent on fire by the City of San Diego, which is just one out of 18 cities in the county.
PENNER: Okay, well, let’s talk a little bit about that $5 million. That’s how much the county supervisors approved, John Warren, to provide for the new authority. And as Miriam said, it goes for upgrading living quarters, developing training facilities, a few hundred thousand on equipment and mapping technology but nothing for firefighters and nothing to consolidate the dispatch services to bring them all together. Why weren’t those items funded?
WARREN: Well, that’s a very important question and Jeff Bowman, the former San Diego Fire Chief, raises that question because he said there should’ve been at least 50 engines put in reserve for this and probably about 200 firefighters added, which they didn’t want to do. And so, again, it’s a matter of politics. It’s not dealing with it. The communication issue is a very key one because the consolidation is not going to take place unless the people in the rural areas are comfortable and they’re not comfortable with the way the system is designed to work at this point.
PENNER: Let me ask our listeners about that. Are you buying what John Warren has to say? That it’s politics that have essentially defeated the idea of robust funding, robust funding, for a County Fire Authority and that it really has nothing to do with money at all. It has to do with keeping their own territory safe, each fire district. A turf battle, really. Miriam, do you agree with that?
RAFTERY: Well, that’s certainly part of it, Gloria, but nonetheless, you look at the priorities of the supervisors and, you know, I think as public officials it’s really their obligation to put public safety first. They ignored the major recommendations of the grand jury report and many other – the majority of the ten reports or so that have been done through the years. Almost all of those recommended significant more funding for firefighting itself, and, you know, they’ve managed to spend money through the years on things like Charger ticket guarantees and, what, $32 million for a new library? I’m a writer, I love libraries but if it’s a choice between that or keeping my house safe from burning down, I think the public safety should be first and they should figure out a way to get everybody at the table and try to work this out.
PENNER: Well, let’s hear from Mike in El Cajon before we have to go into a break. Mike, you’re on with the editors.
MIKE (Caller, El Cajon): Yes, the big problem with the board of supervisors in this respect is that they, as Ricky pointed out a while ago, they tend to do things in press conference style. When we had the vote two years ago for the countywide fire department, they had a press conference to announce it and then they just backed up and didn’t support it. So it passed with 63% of the vote – I mean, it had 63% of the vote with absolutely no publicity from the county, so the county felt it was important enough to have a press conference but not important enough to get out in the community and get people out in the community and convince people that it would be a service to us and it would provide more fire safety by having such a department. And it can be set up so that the local departments still have the autonomy to determine their fire stations. We’re not suggesting that the county fire department would be able to tell the City of San Diego to close down Fire Station 1 or…
PENNER: …we got your point, Mike, and I thank you very much for that. And we’re going to respond to you right after the break. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. We – we’re just talking about some movement at the County Board of Supervisors to establish a Regional Fire Authority and some money that was put behind that, money, by the way, that I understand from a North County Times article came from the supervisors’, I don’t want to say slush, what’s a good word?
WARREN: Discretionary fund.
PENNER: Discretionary fund, that’s good.
PENNER: Yeah, which was kind of an interesting use of the…
PENNER: …discretionary fund. But we’re going to have some wrap-up comments from the editors who today are Ricky Young from the U-T and John Warren from San Diego Voice & Viewpoint and Miriam Raftery from East County Magazine. Wrap-up comments on the establishment of this fire agency and the funding thereof. Ricky, you had something you wanted to say.
YOUNG: Just a couple quick things. Mike had mentioned how the supervisors, you know, put this on the ballot and then kind of walked away and didn’t really push it. When you have five Republicans, pushing for any tax increase is not, you know, is kind of a – not something they’re really active about probably. And then I did just want to mention to the supervisors’ credit, Miriam mentioned the Chargers ticket guarantee and I think that was a city thing, not a county thing.
PENNER: It was a city thing. You’re exactly right.
YOUNG: I mean, there may be other examples of money wasted but I don’t think – That one goes to their benefit.
PENNER: Okay, thank you. That saves us from a fact check because we’re going to be talking a little bit more about fact checking.
YOUNG: All right.
PENNER: John Warren.
WARREN: I want to offer four quick bullets. Number one, I heard a caller making reference to the fires. We need to understand that San Diego, City of San Diego, is a charter city in a charter county, and it has a different legal status than the other cities that might be general purpose cities within the county, and that adds to the issue in terms of how we do the fire thing. Number two, I think Supervisor Jacobs (sic), I want to give her credit because she’s the one person who’s always on the ground, up close and personal, throughout the fires, throughout our whole county, and I believe, being a resident of east county at the time, that if the supervisors had followed her lead in terms of handling east county, the whole thing could’ve come out much better than it did. My third observation about this situation is that changes have been made. We now have the military that we can call in within a 24-hour period instead of waiting days. We now have night flights by helicopters, which we didn’t have in the first place. And so we have additional resources and I think the supervisors are using some of those resources as an excuse for not adding the additional dollars that Steve Whitburn is talking about that should go into the mix. So there’s a great deal involved in this scenario and it’s not as simple as it appears on the surface and part of that is because people in the county – or people in the city are not really in touch with what’s happening in the county.
PENNER: That’s interesting. In which city? The City of San Diego?
WARREN: The City of San Diego.
PENNER: Because we have 18 cities here, you know.
WARREN: Most of the cities, unless they’re El Cajon or going – east county or someplace, they’re not in touch with the issues that the people in the rural areas are confronted with.
WARREN: And I think that’s a very important factor that’s very rarely discussed.
PENNER: Well, and one day we’ll talk about the idea of a City and County of San Diego but not today. Miriam, you get the last brief word.
RAFTERY: Okay. The mutual response time statewide is stretched thin because so many jurisdictions have had to make cuts in their budgets and their fire authorities, and that includes some of them locally. Look at little Lakeside out here where the devastating Cedar Fire began. They’re down to three guys per engine and cutting back on the weed cutting programs and they need help at a broader level to come in and give them a hand. During the Monty Fire, you had people who got out by 20 feet with the flames, the rescues were that close.
PENNER: Okay. Now, thank you very much. And if anybody has a comment in our audience, just go to KPBS.org/editorsroundtable and you can register that comment.