Fire Chiefs respondGary Castagnetti President Ed Ward Vice President Tom Forster Secretary/Treasurer Plumas County Fire Chiefs Association
The Plumas County Fire Chiefs Association recognizes and commends the members of the Plumas County grand jury for their service to our community. Like the many men and women who unselfishly volunteer their time as members of our fire departments, the members of the grand jury deserve to be thanked for their public service.
In the recent Where I Stand article titled “County could provide cost-effective fire coverage” dated Dec. 1, the members of the grand jury point out several problems facing our county relating to providing fire and emergency medical services (EMS) first response. This letter is intended to shed additional light on the problems and offer some of our recommendations.
The specific problems noted by the authors were lack of “cost-effective” fire coverage and potential non-response to properties that exist outside of fire districts.
Drilling down a bit further into each of these problems will provide better understanding of cause and effect as well as clarifying our response policies.
The current range of annual assessment for fire and EMS coverage for the fire protection districts within Plumas County is $100 to $200 per parcel. Given that this is what most homeowners pay per month for cable or satellite TV coverage, it would seem that the cost to belong to a fire district should not be a burden to most property owners.
Why then do they choose not to join a nearby district? Some possible answers
The annexation process is expensive, complicated and time-consuming.
Why pay anything when you are currently getting it for “free”?
Some may just not want to be part of a district regardless of cost.
Annexation has been expensive, complicated and time-consuming in the past. However, with the recent changes in the Plumas County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), as well as the interest of the Plumas County Special Districts Association in becoming a member of LAFCO, we believe annexation is becoming a viable option. Individuals and small communities should contact LAFCO to reassess the costs, complexity and timelines that currently exist to complete the annexation process.
Why pay for what you are getting now for free? The authors of the Where We Stand article suggest that if your property lies outside of a fire district there will be no response in the event of a fire (or EMS) incident. This is just not true in Plumas County. A survey of the district policies found no evidence that any fire district has an “out of district non-response” policy (written or verbal). The authors had to cite counties elsewhere in California and other states to provide examples of this, rather than noting that there has never been an intentional “non-response” to any emergency by the fire agencies within Plumas County.
To the contrary, many of our 911 page-outs are to locations out of district and we respond, period. For properties that are out of district, we may initiate bills and make every reasonable attempt to collect. Our philosophy is we will do the right thing and respond, and we expect the property owner to also do the right thing and cover our costs. As a result, some communities have chosen to not annex into the nearby districts reasoning that “I am willing to gamble that my property or my loved one will not
catch fire or require EMS response, so why pay an annual fee if you can get it for free?”
Undoubtedly there may exist some property owners who wish to remain totally independent and choose to not join any district regardless of cost or potential risks.
A solution to all three of these “reasons” would be for the county to pass an ordinance requiring all property owners to belong to a fire district and to work with LAFCO to streamline the annexation process, including providing some financial assistance if needed. Thus existing and future developments and/or independent dwellings would not be approved without the owner first committing to be part of a fire district.
Additionally, the county needs to reach agreement with the fire districts on a tax sharing agreement that has been implemented in some areas but is non-existent in others. A countywide cost sharing agreement would go a long way towards lessening the individual cost burden for fire and EMS coverage throughout the county.
Although CalFire adding services might be an option, it is much more complex than it may appear. For example, the annual tax revenues required to provide fire and first response EMS would far exceed the $350,000 – $500,000 cost suggested by the authors. Many of the budgets of the existing fire districts exceed this amount already, without the additional cost burden of paying salaries, benefits and retirement for their firefighters and officers.
The state certainly can’t be expected to provide this without charge, and thus it would greatly increase the tax burden on everyone within the county. Another example of a hidden cost is that few of the existing fire stations have living quarters. CalFire would have to modify our existing fire stations to provide this, further increasing the total cost to transition from the existing fire district structure.
In addition, Governor Jerry Brown's budget proposal includes shifting the responsibility for firefighting from the state in many areas to local government. This would impact about one-third of CalFire's budget, along with reducing fire season staffing on CalFire engines. The reason given is "...because local governments have in recent decades approved development in rural areas, creating a situation…” where CalFire responds to thousands of emergencies that the agency was not originally designed to address, like EMS calls.
We thank all of the members of our communities for supporting our mostly volunteer fire services. We believe this is the most cost-effective solution for our large but lightly populated county.
The Plumas County Fire Chiefs Association understands the need to provide cost-effective fire and first response EMS service to every property owner in Plumas County, as well as the need to incorporate into our fire districts those properties currently located out of our districts. We believe that the work of the 2009-10 Grand Jury has helped raise the awareness of this issue and we are committed to working with the county to develop reasonable solutions that can be implemented in the near term.