Our reporting relies on your support. Contribute today! 

Help us reach our goal of $250,000. The countdown is on!

Statement: “There’s a reason why [the] volunteers have dropped from 300 to 150,” Frank De Clercq, head of the city of San Diego firefighters’ union, wrote Aug. 28, referring to the number of volunteer firefighters in the county.

Determination: False

Analysis: De Clercq is a longtime critic of the county’s fire protection efforts. He argues the county inadequately funds firefighting and should give cities more money from a pot of taxes devoted to public safety functions.

This year, the county’s budgeted $15.5 million toward fire protection with much of the money aimed at strengthening rural volunteer fire departments. The money pays for equipment and training for volunteers and provides some a stipend so they’re on-call for emergencies more often.

De Clercq says it’s still not enough and often publicly spars with county officials, especially Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents backcountry communities that rely on volunteer firefighters. And in August, the battle spilled into this blog.

After we fact checked a true claim by Jacob, De Clercq repeated his criticism of county fire protection in the comments section of the post. But he also added a new claim. De Clercq suggested the county’s inadequate funding had driven away volunteer firefighters. He wrote:

These [county supervisors] depend on volunteers to use their own gas and drive to stations to volunteer their time for free while they’re busy traveling the world on taxpayer funded junkets. There’s a reason why [the] volunteers have dropped from 300 to 150. Hopefully some will show up for the next “100 year fire”!

The decline of volunteers sounded stark, so we asked De Clercq where he got the information. He said he’d heard it from Augie Ghio, fire chief of the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District and a past president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs’ Association.

So we contacted Ghio about the numbers. Ghio said he didn’t have an exact count of volunteer firefighters but already knew their ranks hadn’t declined as De Clercq said. Ghio referred us to county officials who track volunteers.

We called the San Diego County Fire Authority, and its spokeswoman said the county averaged 514 volunteer firefighters last year and 515 so far this year.

There hasn’t been any drop, as De Clercq claimed, and hundreds of more firefighters are available than De Clercq claimed. His numbers were way off.

When we told De Clercq, he dismissed the county’s figures and then attacked the credibility of the person he originally said was the source of his numbers. He said Ghio answers to Jacob, who often battles De Clercq and represents the same communities where Ghio is fire chief.

But Jacob isn’t Ghio’s boss. He operates an independent fire district under a seven-member board of directors that doesn’t include Jacob. “I don’t know why he’s making a comment like that,” Ghio said. “The numbers are what the numbers are.”

De Clercq continued to reject the totals. He demanded to view a roster of all 515 volunteers so he could independently verify each person. “The list with names should be provided,” De Clercq wrote in an email. “If they can’t provide that, then the information is not credible.”

But we have no reason to question the accuracy of the county’s totals. We do, though, have reason to question De Clercq’s numbers.

Ghio, the person De Clercq originally cited as his source, said the numbers are wrong. The county agency that monitors the number of volunteer firefighters said the numbers are wrong. And De Clercq himself provided no evidence to back up his claims.

For those reasons, we’ve rated the statement False. If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about public safety and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

Like VOSD on Facebook.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.