Modesto Regional Fire Authority will disband and adopt automatic-aid agreements

kcarlson@modbee.comMay 7, 2014 

ET Houses Fire 1

Crews tackle a north Modesto fire in March. Leaders of the city, county and Salida fire district will consider automatic-aid deals that commit the closest units to respond to emergencies regardless of territorial boundaries.

ERIN TRACY — etracy@modbee.com Buy Photo

The Modesto Regional Fire Authority board approved a plan Wednesday to dissolve the joint powers group and take regional fire service in a different direction.

The three-member board is expected to take formal action June 11 to terminate the 3-year-old JPA, which achieved some efficiencies in fire protection but was not able to take in additional members. A transition plan calls for the founding members of MRFA – Modesto, Stanislaus County and the Salida Fire Protection District – to start overseeing their fire services again by July 1.

In June, leaders of Modesto, the county and the Salida district will consider agreements for a less formal model for regional fire service. The three agencies will be independent but bound together by automatic-aid agreements that commit the closest units to respond to emergencies regardless of territorial boundaries.

Officials hope the new model will encourage other fire departments in the county to join. No formal organization will replace MRFA. Participating agencies will remain independent but will respond to incidents as though they were a single fire department, officials said. A committee composed of fire chiefs from the partner agencies will oversee the agreement.

Some people at Wednesday’s meeting suggested the transition to the new model was moving too fast. “We are running a really tight timeline,” said MRFA board member Mark Brubaker of Salida.

Leaders for Modesto, the county and the Salida fire district will consider whether the new automatic-aid agreements are acceptable. John Miguel, a retired fire service veteran from Modesto, said there are questions about staffing levels and the agencies need a buy-in from labor groups.

Sean Slamon, interim chief for MRFA, said the “dropped-boundary” approach is used in Sacramento County, where large fire departments with full-time paid personnel collaborate with smaller volunteer agencies.

Agreements are being developed so dispatchers automatically would send the appropriate units from the member agencies to incidents in Stanislaus County. Depending on the location, a smaller, rural department might arrive more quickly than city fire to start rescuing a victim from a burning home near the edge of Modesto.

In another scenario, city firefighters would start the attack on a hypothetical blaze at Tenth Street Place downtown, but with the second and third alarms, Ceres could have additional engines on scene quicker than other Modesto stations, Slamon said.

The chief said sending the closest units could make the difference between life and death for people in an emergency. Others suggested that emergency responders would be more prepared for a disaster. “No fire agency in the county has the capability on their own for a major event,” said county Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who subbed as a MRFA board member Wednesday.

Slamon said the dropped-boundary model might lead to lower fire insurance rates for property owners, though he could not guarantee it. The partner agencies could see lower prices for hoses and other equipment by combining their purchasing, he added.

County Chief Executive Stan Risen said it was a “corrective course” for efforts to regionalize fire service. The joint powers structure was a stumbling block for other agencies that were interested in joining but were concerned they would not have representation on the board, he said.

MRFA’s governance structure also created difficulties for labor negotiations..

Mark Stone, who is retired from the city department, said a more cooperative arrangement is long overdue, but there could be problems if agencies need to make budget cuts. Stone cautioned that one department could save costs by closing a station and letting a neighboring district cover that area.

Slamon said officials will keep working on details of the automatic-aid agreements, joint training of personnel and the transition to the new model. After July 1, the shared assets of the defunct fire authority will be returned to the respective agencies.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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