The first official meeting between the joint boards of the Chester Public Utility District, Prattville-Almanor Fire and the West Almanor Fire Department was held in the CPUD conference room Aug. 31, to discuss district consolidation as a possible solution to the problem of retaining fire fighting volunteers in the Almanor Basin, whose number has been declining for several years.
The West Almanor Fire Department is the primary unit of the West Almanor Community Services District (WACSD), a county-chartered special district that serves the community of Lake Almanor West.
The conference was conducted under Plumas County Supervisor Sherrie Thrall’s chairmanship, and was also attended by representatives from Peninsula Fire and members of the public.
WACSD initiated contact with CPUD and the Prattville-Almanor Fire Department, noting staffing concerns and asking whether neighboring districts would be willing to discuss the possibility of consolidation.
“The discussion was positive and constructive,” stated Dale Knutsen, president of the board of directors for the WACSD, and while no specific solutions had been reached just yet, “the mutual goal is to ensure continuing essential emergency response services to our communities.”
The West Almanor Community Services District board “brought this problem to the attention of the other fire departments for the purpose of exploring different options,” said Knutsen.
Knutsen said the WAFD, which has one paid position, the fire chief, with the remainder of the emergency response staffing composed of a small contingent of community volunteers, is responsible for fire protection within its jurisdiction. Ambulance service is provided by Chester Fire.
Mutual aid arrangements are in place for added support from adjacent fire districts around the Basin, he noted.
“Board members all had a chance to express what was on our minds,” Knutsen continued. “But no commitments were made at the meeting, except all agreed to work through a series of discussions to see where it leads.”
He said directors decided to form a committee composed of a small working group appointed by the three boards to further consider the possibility of consolidation. This small group would operate as an ad hoc staff and would bring suggestions and issues to the boards as progress is made in the coming months.
Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 12, to further advance the discussion, he added, when the committee will focus on whether it’s worthwhile for the three boards to consider the matter in more detail.
“The talks will remain open ended until we arrive at a conclusion at a future date,” Knutsen said.
In recent years it has become increasingly difficult to recruit and retain a desirable number of volunteers as the community has undergone significant changes, he said.
“Recognizing this trend, the board of directors of WACSD began an effort approximately a year ago to evaluate the matter.” Continuing, Knutsen said, “A review of the demographics of the Lake Almanor West community basically confirmed what was already known: over time there has been a shift from full-time to part-time residents while the age of residents has increased,” with the average age of volunteers approaching 70.
“The real issue is that in years past, we had a younger population at West Almanor, so there was a stable and relatively younger demographic to draw from. Over time, that has changed.”
With fewer and fewer volunteers available given a declining population, the need for young people is critical, he stressed.
“We still have the same need to respond to medical and fire, and the question we have to ask ourselves is how far can we go until we run out of staff?”
He noted that volunteers that remain have a heavier burden placed upon them, “which puts a strain on them and their families.”
The obvious concern is that without more volunteers entering the workforce, “current volunteers, who have been on duty for quite a few years, may decide the workload is too much for them and drop out,” exacerbating the problem.
“What we have right now, is that only around 25 percent of the homes in West Almanor are occupied with fulltime residents, the rest being occupied during a relatively short period of time when owners are present for only two or three weeks out of the year.”
Knutsen said, “We’re not alone with this issue; all the fire districts have problems finding and retaining volunteers. It’s worse for us because our population is so migratory, so we lack a stable base to recruit from.”
This trend does not seem likely to change in the near-term, Knutsen lamented, leading to a need to cope with its impact on emergency service staffing using some other strategy.
He said the WACSD board members have undertaken a review of several alternative-staffing approaches, while considering their operational and cost implications.
“We looked at a variety of affordable alternatives that maintained acceptable emergency service levels in the community, which also included feasibility studies.”
For example, contracting out for fire fighting services with paid, per-call staffing when volunteer numbers drop below critical levels or trying to see if there was some way to tie in with CalFire.
Ultimately, the WACSD board determined that district consolidation might offer the most favorable set of long-term solutions.
“Consolidation, of course, is not a unilateral decision,” Knutsen acknowledged. “The very word stirs up emotions in many people, some fearful, some supportive.”
There are a great many aspects of a district merger that must be addressed in a fair and thoughtful manner before a mutually agreeable and mutually beneficial arrangement is developed, he said. “If consolidation is the end result, it will only be accomplished through carefully crafted agreements between independent agencies.”
Knutsen said the goal is to proceed through this process without noticeable impact on important emergency services, adding, “Fire and medical response will still be there when you call 911.”
Currently there is a Mutual Aid Agreement between the districts, so how would consolidation change things as they now stand?
“Consolidation means combining districts together organizationally,” explained Knutsen, “including bringing our resources together. … That means there would be a new district made of three departments with just one board to oversee operations. … If we don’t do this, at least in our situation, we will only have the one paid staff member at the West Almanor Fire Department and no volunteers. That would mean we would rely totally on the Mutual Aid Agreement. … Consolidation is a way to pool our resources.”
The advantages for the other fire departments are the use of West Almanor Fire Department’s excellent fire fighting equipment,” he said, and a modern facility, that “we can share with other departments that have the trained volunteers we lack.” The tax base of all the districts in question could also be incorporated into one pool.
At this point in the process, there have been no decisions other than to discuss the matter. The duration and outcome of those discussions are currently undetermined.”
WASCD communication to its customers
Lake Almanor West residents were notified of these potential changes with the following brief item posted on the district’s local electronic bulletin board, the Pinecone Telegraph, which stated, in part:
Impact of Changing Demographics
Since its inception four decades ago, the West Almanor Fire Department has relied on community volunteers to serve as emergency responders at Lake Almanor West. These are fellow homeowners who unselfishly undergo continuous training and make themselves available 24/7, to come to the aid of their neighbors.
Unfortunately, our community demographics have changed significantly over time, resulting in fewer and considerably older full-time residents. That has led to a gradual decline in the number of actual or potential emergency volunteers.
In short, WAFD is anticipating a critical shortage of staffing within a very few years.