Being married isn't easy. It requires communication honest and ongoing, even about hard topics. Money is often a subject for dispute, especially when there isn't enough of it.
Most couples experience a period of marital bliss, but that wasn't the case for the three local fire agencies that united almost 18 months ago to become the Modesto Regional Fire Authority.
This modern family is composed of the Modesto Fire Department, the Salida Fire Protection District and Stanislaus County's fire warden's office. After years of discussion, they formed a joint powers authority with the goal of providing the most efficient and effective fire and life safety services, to eliminate or avoid duplication of services, and to develop regional services and solution.
Last week, the authority's three elected board members, its top paid staff members and the top executives from the city and Stanislaus County gathered to review how the marriage has gone and what challenges it faces.
It's probably a good thing that the session opened with a commitment from the three elected representatives that they remained committed to this union, because the rest of the conversation focuses on the many tasks ahead most, but not all, related to money.
The regional entity is funded by its parent agencies. The city is by far the largest financial partner and over the past five years, it has reduced its fire staffing. Those cuts explain what clearly is the most pressing challenge for the fire authority: improving response times to structure fires.
Years ago the City Council set a standard that called for an engine to respond within six minutes to every fire call and for multiple units to respond within 10 minutes to an actual structure fire. The fire agency continues to comply with the six-minute standard more than 90 percent of the time. But the compliance rate to get multiple engines to a fire has dropped to 70 percent to 80 percent.
Appropriately, city leaders and the regional fire leaders are concerned about that, for obvious safety reasons for the public and for firefighters but also because it could result in higher fire insurance costs for businesses and residential property owners. Modesto and Salida are due for a review by the insurance services office next year.
Response times were on the rise before this consolidation, so we would suggest that they are more the result of city budget cuts than of the merger. The reductions put the new Modesto Regional fire agency in the situation of asking for mutual aid as often as it has provided it. Years ago, Modesto regularly provided assistance to the smaller outlying agencies.
Does the city need to allocate more money for firefighting and medical rescues? That issue is on the agenda for a meeting Friday that Mayor Garrad Marsh has called to talk about public safety needs in the city. We won't be surprised if the outgrowth of that meeting and subsequent conversations will be a proposed public safety tax. But there are other options for more money, including having businesses that use dangerous chemicals pay to support the hazardous materials response team.
Personnel isn't the only expensive part of a fire agency. The fire authority needs to have a long-term plan for replacing fire engines and other equipment, including the specialized breathing apparatus that will soon be obsolete.
Lots of public agencies can postpone capital investments, training and other expenses without creating a crisis. That's not the case with the fire agencies, which are truly in the life-and-death business.
From the day this marriage became real, there has been discussion that the Modesto Regional Fire Authority will become a free-standing entity. It's still headed in that direction, but slowly.
One of the things that this new partnership has been doing well is succession planning. Interim chief Gary Hinshaw plans to retire next summer, and the board is working on a plan to name a permanent replacement. Young leaders are being trained throughout the organization.
Despite the bumps, we still believe in this type of regional relationship as the most effective way to provide critical and specialized services. Will it be easy to keep it going and to expand it to include a larger area? Of course not. A marriage takes work.