Stanislaus County backs fire proposals

Stanislaus County agrees with most of the civil grand jury criticism of fire services in the county. Officials just don't feel they can do anything about it.

The grand jury issued a report this summer citing problems that have been aired in the past:

  • The county's 18 fire safety organizations have varying qual-ity of training, response times and professional capabilities.
  • Many are facing financial challenges in meeting responsibilities in the face of stagnant or shrinking revenues.

Merging several of the smaller fire districts would lower administration costs, standardize recruitment and training and offer more efficient location of fire stations, the grand jury said.

The grand jury recommended that the county take a leadership role in solving the problems, working with the county fire chiefs' association and the fire district boards to consolidate the districts.

In a response approved by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, the county agreed with much of the report, but pointed out that the fire districts are independent. The county does not have the authority to tell them what to do, the response says.

The Board of Supervisors has appointed an ad-hoc committee to meet with fire agencies to discuss funding and operational issues, and county staff has been instructed to work with the fire agencies on ways to deliver services in the most efficient way, according to the response.

The county is willing to share the costs of hiring a consultant to help figure out how to make fire and emergency services in the county work efficiently into the future, the response says.

Challenges to meet

County Fire Warden and assistant director of emergency services Gary Hinshaw said the problems aren't unique to Stanislaus County.

"Fire services up and down the state of California are challenged with increasing training requirements, financial issues, requirements for protective gear and equipment, higher insurance costs, worker's compensation and fuel costs," Hinshaw said.

Call volumes are up with population increases, and revenues have remained flat, he said. Most of the rural districts don't have paid staff and have to find a way to transition to a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.

But he agreed that the county has no authority to tell the districts what to do. "They are their own form of government," Hinshaw said.

The county also responded to a grand jury report on how well it is prepared to deal with disasters.

The grand jury recommended the county seek ways to improve collaboration with volunteer organizations; develop a plan to meet needs of evacuees coming from surrounding regions when a state emergency arises; update computer equipment and communications systems in the coroner's office; and upgrade the coroner's facility.

Some of those things are under way and others need more study, the county response says.

The county is working on ways to include faith-based and other nongovernment agencies in disaster planning, Hinshaw said.

Hinshaw is attending an emergency management conference this week that is working on issues such as regional mass evacuations in the case of natural or man-made disasters.

"Disasters don't follow jurisdictional boundaries," Hinshaw said. "We are preparing our counties to share knowledge from region to region."

The county has authorized the sheriff to spend $310,000 this year to update the coroner's facility, including data processing, record keeping, computer equipment and structural upgrades, according to the response.

Building a new coroner's facility is a high priority for the county, the response says.

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.