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Don’t worry if you can’t decide whether the county has a fire department. The county supervisors, who created a county fire agency and oversee its budget, continue to debate the answer, too.
While discussing fire protection at a board meeting last week, Supervisor Bill Horn said the county doesn’t have a fire department. Supervisor Dianne Jacob insisted it does. Supervisor Greg Cox agreed with Horn and said the county would probably never have a fire department.
Supervisor Ron Roberts didn’t weigh on the fire agency’s identity, but Supervisor Pam Slater-Price disagreed with Horn and Cox. Then, before moving on with the meeting’s agenda, Jacob requested another minute to comment.
“Just for the record, we do have a fire department,” she said.
The disagreement exemplified another point in years of debate about the county’s role in fire protection. Supervisors have aimed to improve fire protection in rural communities, particularly in recent years, but have faced financial and political barriers along the way.
Two years ago, the supervisors budgeted $15 million annually to support existing fire departments in the backcountry through a new agency called the Regional Fire Authority. The county has bought fire trucks and other firefighting equipment, but doesn’t employ its own firefighters. Instead, it pays volunteer and Cal Fire firefighters to increase emergency response coverage in rural areas.
“That is our fire department,” Jacob insisted twice at the board meeting. “We just do it differently.”
I’ve previously pointed out numerous factors that make the Regional Fire Authority different than a traditional fire department. It has patches and a uniform, for example, but not every firefighter wears them.
Whether the new agency constitutes a fire department has become a sticking point among the supervisors because their critics have used the identity crisis as political ammunition. Earlier this year, a labor-backed ballot measure creating term limits cited the absence of a fire department to cast the supervisors as unresponsive to the 2003 and 2007 wildfires. Stephen Whitburn, challenging to unseat Roberts this November, has used similar rhetoric on the campaign trail.
At the board meeting last week, the supervisors made numerous organizational changes to the Regional Fire Authority, added $5 million in one-time fire protection spending and named the local Cal Fire leader the county agency’s fire chief (no additional pay included).
The supervisors also approved a plan to consolidate rural fire districts through a similar arrangement used by Orange County municipalities, but details about the plan are still being worked out.