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Fire agency changes urged

Twelve years ago, Stanislaus County supervisors got out of the fire business. Tuesday, a grand jury said they should get back in.

Why? Because six city and 14 rural fire departments in Stanislaus County independently are "inefficient and inadequate to meet the needs of a growing county population," grand jurors wrote.

Civil grand jurors maintained a cooperation theme in other reports also released Tuesday, suggesting that:

Law enforcement agencies throughout the county should pool resources to recruit officers.

Supervisors should anticipate a mass influx of refugees from disasters in other regions.

Leaders should move quickly to upgrade the county jail and morgue.

The grand jury's fire investigation follows a countywide review by a consultant who found wide variations in standards, training and response times among the 20 departments.

Though supervisors have limited authority over independent agencies, safety demands that county leaders take the bull by the horns, the report recommends.

"It's not going to be easy to solve, it's unpleasant to talk about, but we have to start looking at it," agreed Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill O'Brien on Tuesday.

Supervisors in 1995 merged the county fire department with three others to form the autonomous Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District. A consultant recently said other departments should join forces, as well, but noted political difficulty in yielding power and tradition.

Grand jurors said supervisors should use their influence to finesse cooperation, because no one else can. They might hire a facilitator "to work with all districts to change the current delivery system," or collaborate with the Stanislaus County Fire Chiefs Association, the report reads.

The report only briefly mentions recent cooperative strides among fire agencies, including the fire chiefs association and the Stanislaus County Fire Authority. The latter pools resources of various departments to provide six regional services, including fire investigations, communications and training.

A plan for the future

In a separate effort, six of the 20 fire departments recently persuaded the county to form an adhoc fire committee to develop a cooperative plan for their futures. The Salida, Westport, Woodland Avenue, West Stanislaus, Mountain View and Oakdale Rural departments joined Supervisors O'Brien and Jeff Grover. And Keyes wants in, too.

"It's serious business," said Salida Fire Chief Dale Skiles. The combined group protects about 70 percent of the land in Stanislaus County, he said.

Each district predicted its status in five years. Woodland Avenue Chief Mike Passalaqua said he expects to lose 25 percent to 30percent of his funding as Modesto continues annexing areas served by his firefighters.

"It's just normal growth," Passalaqua said.

"Speaking for Salida," Skiles said, "doing nothing is not one of the solutions. We believe there is a need for change. The communities we serve have changed, therefore so should fire service."

County supervisors are required by law to respond formally to the grand jury report within 90 days.

Grand jurors issued a mostly positive report on county jails, but noted a serious crowding threat. The jail in downtown Modesto is "old, smelly, overcrowded, out of date, lacking in space," the report reads.

County administrators recently estimated that expanding the jail on Hackett Road would cost $78.8 million. Building a new coroner's facility to replace the 27-year-old one on Oakdale Road would cost about $5.6 million, administrators say.

News reports prompted grand jurors to check ways of recruiting and retaining peace officers.

Modesto police Sgt. Scott Blom said various law enforcement agencies previously discussed creating a uniform application to jointly approach potential candidates at military bases. The idea was dropped because each agency looks for different attributes, he said.

But for eight months, agencies from Sonora to Los Banos have been staffing recruitment booths in a central location on testing days at the Ray Simon Criminal Justice Training Center, Blom said. "It's worked well. We're getting home-grown folks," he said.

Grand jurors seemed interested in the county Office of Emergency Service's preparations for disasters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, said Gary Hinshaw, county fire warden.

Though Hinshaw's plan could accommodate 7,000 evacuees in 65 shelters, that might not be enough if levees fail south of Sacramento or if an earthquake ravages the Bay Area.

"Regional plans are next on the agenda of most emergency services coordinators throughout the state," Hinshaw said.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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