Monday, Aug. 14, 2006 | Earlier this year, the Intermountain Fire-Rescue Department hosted a Hawaiian luau. Hundreds of community members attended the $40-per-plate fete, which came complete with a Kamaaina Luau menu and live dancing from the Halou Hula O’Ka’co group.

By the end of the night, the department, based eight miles outside Ramona, had raised about $40,000 – half of the department’s annual $80,000 operating budget.

And it’s not always a luau that is used to finance the community’s fire service. Last year, the firefighters at Intermountain organized a Western barbeque steak dinner. Next year, they hope to do something a little classier – a black tie event at Mt. Woodson. Every now and then, the firefighters host a car wash to pay for their badges and patches.

Chief Cary Coleman hopes, however, that these fundraisers will soon become a thing of the past. Not that he doesn’t enjoy the steak dinners and Hawaiian dancing. He just thinks that the county, rather than local quasi-philanthropists, should be paying for fire protection.

San Diego is the largest county in California without its own fire department. Sixty-five separate agencies protect the wide, arid county, but there is no unified command that binds them together. Many of the rural areas of San Diego are protected by understaffed and underfunded fire districts, officials say. In some of the unincorporated regions of the county, there is simply no fire department whatsoever.

That’s a problem, according to fire officials, because when fires break out in these unprotected regions, crews leave the town they are paid to protect to take care of another locality.

The patchwork system began in 1974, when the county discontinued its funding for fire services and encouraged unincorporated areas to create their own volunteer fire departments. For more than 30 years, the county stayed out of the fire protection business. This year, the Board of Supervisors began to reverse that trend, approving a three-year program that provides $5 million annually for such simple expenses as utility bills and gas for rural volunteer fire agencies. They approved an additional $3.5 million this year.

In the coming years, however, Coleman and other fire chiefs will be looking to the county to go a step further and create a countywide fire district – complete with an elected board and county fire chief independent from county government.

San Diego’s Local Agency Formation Commission, a group that attempts to discourage sprawl through strategic planning, has been studying the possibility of merging 24 rural fire agencies into one special fire district since 2004.

LAFCO is contemplating six different fire protection plans right now that would, to various degrees, combine fire departments, improve the quality of volunteer fire crews and in some instances hire paid personnel. The agency expects to deliver the results of this study in December.

Seated in his cubicle in the County Administration Building, John Traylor, who is heading up LAFCO’s study, points to a map titled “Proposed San Diego County Regional Fire Protection District.” After noting a few areas in East County where he says it could take up to an hour for emergency medical services to reach a traffic accident, the 37-year fire veteran points to a small dot on the map.

“Here’s a volunteer company that no longer exists,” he said. “There’s no volunteers here. There’s a building. But I don’t think they even have a fire truck here. So this is a nonexistent fire department.”

The six plans Traylor will outline all provide different levels of protection to the county and will come with different costs. LAFCO proposed its most ambitious plan earlier this year – a project that would require an estimated $55 million per year of additional funding for fire service.

That estimate, which could change substantially when LAFCO releases another study in December, is on top of a yet-to-be-determined, one-time start up cost. Traylor said the agency is trying to identify various sources of funding for beefing up county fire coverage.

One concept, floated by county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, would divert 1 percent of county property taxes from schools to the newly created fire department. She said she would in turn lobby the state Legislature to pick up the difference so that schools do not lose out on funding.

San Diego County currently pays 63 cents of each dollar of property taxes it collects to schools. The statewide average is 52 cents on the dollar, and Jacob said there is no reason why inequitable state funding should hamper San Diego’s fire protection. She said she has a legislator to sponsor a bill aimed at picking up the difference, but declined to say who the sponsor is.

Jacob said that the $55 million estimate for what she describes as the “Cadillac model” of fire protection could change when LAFCO releases its newest study in December. She said it is unclear whether a 1 percent shift in property taxes could cover the costs of implementing this model of service.

Although Jacob said that the county took a big step by changing its position on fire protection and providing funding to local departments, she, along with local fire officials acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to be done. A vote of the public in the affected areas would ultimately be necessary.

Coleman’s crew, for instance, sometimes takes as long as 20 minutes to reach faraway emergencies. With a new fire station out in the region, that could be cut down to five or six minutes, Coleman said. More importantly, he said, funding could help his crew get the necessary equipment and training to properly protect itself.

“We’ve learned to do a lot with very little,” said Coleman, who gets the remainder of his budget from grants and cost-recovery fees. “More often than not, we put our personnel in danger because we don’t have the adequate equipment to do the job.”

Along with updating his department’s equipment, he would like to pay his firefighters a stipend so that they could at least cover the cost of driving to work. Most of his crew members work other jobs, and many of them drive from Los Angeles to provide their services.

His station responds to about 300 calls per year, about 85 percent of which relate to traffic accidents or emergency medical services. Coleman said that the county should be paying to handle these calls and while he is supportive of LAFCO’s plans, he is not optimistic about getting the county to shell out the money required to complete a merger. He also sees the dissolution of the current $8.5 million funding as a very real possibility.

“Honestly, I don’t think they’re going to do it,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to pony it up out of their budget.”

And Coleman is quick to point out that although his department’s resources are stretched thin, things could be worse. Traylor said there are regions of the county where it can take up to an hour for fire crews to respond to an emergency

“We are in better shape than a lot of departments out there,” Coleman said. “But it’s taken me 10 years of damn near killing myself to get it there.”

Please contact Sam Hodgson directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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