Either San Diego County has a fire department or it doesn’t. Either there’s a group of hose-hoisting firefighters racing through the backcountry on gleaming red engines, or there’s not, right? Well, those firefighters do exist, but there’s still a major dispute over whether the county has a fire department.

The ballot argument championing term limits for the county supervisors breaks down to this: Since the current board is unresponsive to the public, they must be forced out of office (even if that takes another eight years).

To cast the supervisors as ineffectual, term limits backers repeatedly juxtaposed money spent on a controversial grants program to the lack of money spent on fire protection. “Why are we a county without a fire department after two devastating wildfires?” the backers wrote for ballot materials distributed to voters.

Term limits opponents snapped back because it implies that the county is not in the fire protection business, and that’s not entirely true. Two years ago, the supervisors created the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority and budgeted $15 million annually to boost firefighting resources in the backcountry.

And this dispute happens all the time. It came up again Wednesday as the Board of Supervisors discussed a new study on the region’s firefighting arsenal. Again, critics pointed to not having a county fire department when other big counties do.

“I know a lot of criticism has been that we don’t have a county fire department,” Supervisor Bill Horn replied, “but I happen to think the services that we are currently providing … [are] about as good as we can get. If we had a county fire department logo painted on the door, I don’t know the response times would be any better than they currently are.”

To help you sort through the county’s firefighting identity crisis, we’re going to explain what makes the Regional Fire Authority like a fire department and how it’s different. This information comes from public documents, previous research and interviews with firefighters, observers, and county and state officials.

What is the Regional Fire Authority?

The Regional Fire Authority is a formal agreement between seven existing fire agencies that serve rural areas in East County where large wildfires are more likely. The county works as an administrator to build and support upon those agency’s services. For example, it increased the number of volunteer firefighters from roughly 200 to more than 500 and expanded service to an additional 942,000 acres.

What does a fire department look like at a county that definitely has a department?

Both Los Angeles and Orange counties, for example, have county fire agencies that follow more traditional command models like the city of San Diego’s Fire Department. They have direct control of daily operations, manage budgets, employ firefighters and have a unified identity in the community. They’re called the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the Orange County Regional Fire Authority.

Does San Diego County have its own firefighters?

No. The county provides background and medical checks and stipends for volunteer firefighters at the seven agencies that are members of the Regional Fire Authority. They are paid to be available at key fire stations 24/7 to improve response times.

But these volunteers are not county employees. They’re more like contracted workers. The Regional Fire Authority pays for support from Cal Fire’s professional firefighters. Again, they are not county employees, but they do work in the same effort.

Do those volunteer and Cal Fire firefighters take orders from the county?

Not really. No one at the county runs the daily activities in the same capacity as a traditional fire department’s administration. The partnership is meant to support and build upon existing agencies rather than take them over. Informally, Cal Fire has taken a lead role in directing daily activities.

Does the Fire Authority have a fire chief?

No. Volunteer fire chiefs or Cal Fire chiefs manage operations at the member agencies and fire stations now part of the Regional Fire Authority.

The Regional Fire Authority’s de-facto leader is Chandra Wallar, the deputy chief administrative officer and general manager of the county’s Land Use and Environmental Group. When the county created the Regional Fire Authority, it added the position of “fire warden” to her job. She mainly oversees the contracts, weed abatement and land use policies.

Is the Regional Fire Authority considered a public safety function?

Yes and no. The group obviously provides public safety services, but the Regional Fire Authority is currently part of the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use. It doesn’t report directly to county administrators who oversee other public safety functions like the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office.

Do the firefighters have Regional Fire Authority uniforms?

No. The county doesn’t have an official uniform, but it does provide firefighters with a badge and a patch of the Regional Fire Authority emblem. Cal Fire firefighters always wear Cal Fire uniforms.

Does the Regional Fire Authority train the volunteer firefighters?

Not exactly. Cal Fire provides the training.

Does the county have its own fire trucks?

Yes. Over the last five years, which includes before the Regional Fire Authority was created, the county has bought 33 fire trucks and water tankers. This equipment is used by member agencies of the Regional Fire Authority, but the county retains ownership and liability. The trucks have the county’s logo on the side.

Any firefighting helicopters or airplanes?

Yes. The Sheriff’s Department has two helicopters capable of assisting fire or rescue operations. The pilots work for the Sheriff’s Department and Cal Fire officials go on the rescue or fire-related calls. Cal Fire also owns air tankers.

How does San Diego County’s spending on fire protection compare to places that definitely have county fire departments?

This answer tends to go in circles. Studies show San Diego County spending significantly less than other urban, southern California counties like Orange and Los Angeles. County officials generally snub those reports, arguing that each county has unique geographic, jurisdictional and political environments that make direct comparisons unequal.

Does the Regional Fire Authority do any fire prevention or brush management?

Not exactly. For the most part, Cal Fire does fire hazard inspections in the backcountry and when necessary, the county provides enforcement through its government code. The individual agencies do some defensible space or other preventive programs on their own.

Does the Regional Fire Authority respond to emergency medical calls?

Yes and no. All of the member agencies respond to emergency medical calls and provide those services, but the Regional Fire Authority does not command them. Its primary focus is responding to fire.

So does San Diego County have a fire department?

Not exactly. The county has definitely expanded fire protection services in recent years, but perhaps the starkest organizational comparison between Regional Fire Authority and other agencies is its command structure and the absence of career firefighters. Does a fire department exist if the county doesn’t directly command anyone and doesn’t employ any firefighters?

But please let me know what you think by sending an email to keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org. Make sure to explain what information pushes you one way or the other.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org

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