Update April 4, 2019 -- Alex Bell, public information officer for San Diego, has clarified that on March 29, the same day our story below ran, a letter was sent to JFCPD Chief Van Bibber and the JCFPD board president via email and certified mail notifying him of volunteer opportunities. In addition a flyer was provided to them for distribution to their volunteers. "Since Monday, 8 Julian firefighters have applied to the County Fire Authority program," Bell told ECM.
By Miriam Raftery
March 29, 2019 (Julian) – Measure A, the ballot initiative to abolish the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District (JCFPD) and put the San Diego County Fire Authority/CAL FIRE in charge of emergency services, appears to have passed by a slim 114 vote margin, 54% to 46%, according to the Registrar of Voters though the results won’t be certified until April 4.
The County issued a press release today headlined “Julian joins the County Fire Authority.” The County states this will bring “full-time professional firefighting and paramedic service to the popular East County tourist destinations.”
“Now that voters in Julian have spoken, it is my hope that the entire community will come together and rally around our common goal to bolster fire protection and other emergency services in the area,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob, who represents the area. The JCFPD is San Diego County's last all-volunteer firefighting department.
But now the County appears to have offered an olive branch to the 60 volunteers in the JCFPD with an opportunity to continue to serve-yet the County failed to inform the JCFPD's Chief or others about that opportunity and a looming deadline.
The County’s press release states, “The County is also taking steps to allow current Julian reserves to continue volunteering exclusively in Julian and Cuyamaca alongside the career firefighters. From April 1 – 15, the County will accept applications for current JCFPD volunteers who meet background, medical, and training requirements. Julian and Cuyamaca will also be represented through a subcommittee to the County’s Fire Advisory Board.”
That comes as a surprise, however, to JCFPD Chief Mike Van Bibber (photo, right). “I can tell you that what you shared with me is not known to the board, myself or any other member of the Dept.,” Chief Van Bibber told ECM in an email this morning. “This is all before formal talks with LAFCO. The proceedings are not official nor have they commenced with dissolution. Cart before the horse. It has the appearance that the county/CALFIRE chooses to communicate with us thru the media rather than thru LAFCO or legal counsel.”
Julian is the last community in San Diego County that has still been relying on volunteers for fire protection. But after the county cut subsidies, last year the board voted to join the County Fire Authority. Some residents collected signatures to protest that decision, so the Fire Board’s decision was put before voters as Measure A in the special election.
The service transition is expected to start soon and be completed well ahead of peak fire season, according to the County.
“A fire department is an integral part of a local community, and we’re looking forward to being active members of Julian and Cuyamaca,” said County Fire Chief Tony Mecham. “We plan on continuing community programming and participating in neighborhood events, and are looking forward to working collaboratively on a smooth transition over the next few weeks.”
According to the County, by joining the Fire Authority, the Julian and Cuyamaca communities will receive a three-person Advanced Life Support paramedic fire engine, staffed by CAL FIRE firefighters, allowing for life-saving medical response when the Julian ambulance is unavailable. The County will also pay for year-round staffing at Station #50 in Julian and CAL FIRE Station #51 in Cuyamaca at no cost to the community. The ballot measure also eliminates a $50 annual fee currently charged to area residents to pay off a loan incurred by the district to build the Julian fire station mortgage.
Another potential benefit of the merger is a potential decrease in homeowner’s insurance premiums. Communities are assigned an “ISO fire score” that calculates how well the local fire department is prepared and able to respond during an emergency. A lower score typically means lower insurance costs. The current ISO score for the Julian and Cuyamaca communities is 5/9, and is expected to reduce to 3/3X under the Fire Authority, after approval by ISO.
The Fire Authority provides fire protection and emergency medical services to 1.5 million acres of the unincorporated county. Funding is provided by the County Board of Supervisors, and the Fire Authority contracts with CAL FIRE San Diego for a staff of professionally trained firefighters, who work alongside volunteer reserves.
Pat Landis, a staunch supporting of keeping the JCFPD independent, voices skepticism over County Fire’s promises to accept Julian’s volunteer firefighters.
“They were in the Julian station for six months and in that time they suspended almost every volunteer stating, falsely, they were not certified or trained up to standards.” Landis says she worked in the station and found “certificates of training for all of the volunteers that were either deliberately or incompetently filed. CAL FIRE, supposedly, arranged training to bring all the firefighters up to speed but neglected to inform them of the date and/or claimed the class was full…CAL FIRE refused to allow the volunteers to drive any of the apparatus, despite their training and many years of experience. The bottom line is that a volunteer threatens to take the job of a CAL FIRE Union firefighter, and they are not wanted. Out of over 400 volunteers that had been protecting the back county, I would venture to guess there are not more than a dozen left working with CalFire or SDCFA.”
She also doubted that CAL-FIRE would adequately fill the shoes of the JCFPC for community services. The JCFPD has an annual pancake breakfast in Cuyamaca and a spaghetti dinner in Julian, donates time and support to youth programs, provides free training through its academy, runs a Fire Explorers program, and helps collect toys and warm clothes for children in need for the holidays.
Landis says CAL FIRE has put engines in a Fourth of July parade and shown up for a trick-or-treat festival at a local elementary school. “Other than that, nothing,” she says. .Landis adds that when CAL FIRE took over fire protection services in the San Miguel Fire Protection District, “CAL FIRE promised to continue the community projects in San Miguel, and all of their programs were discontinued over the four years CAL FIRE was there.” San Miguel, a free-standing fire district, had outsourced firefighting services to CAL FIRE but the San Miguel board later voted to take back district control of firefighting when economic conditions improved.
She also voiced concerns over the 90 percent of calls in the Julian area that are for emergency medical responses, voicing concerns that non-local responders could have trouble finding homes in rural areas. “Beginning In July, the Julian Ambulance Service will cease and there will be another ambulance service. Mercy and AMR are unfamiliar with Julian's neighborhoods and, as far as I know, these companies do not require their staff to be firefighters. The Julian ambulance staff are trained and able to assist with roll-overs, jaws-of-life, etc.”
Photo, right: JCFPD volunteers helped clear a fallen tree on a snowy road during a recent winter storm.
Following a long and at times bitter fight over the future of the Julian-Cuyamaca area’s fire and medical protection, the County and CAL FIRE do have an opportunity to heal the rift and fill the gaps some fear may be left---if county and CAL FIRE leaders choose to do so
“If they want to bring this community together, they will have to lead,” says Landis.”Can they do this? Do they want to do this?”
She adds, “I believe I represent the voice of 46% of the community. It should be the job of the 54% who voted for SDCFA, along with SDCFA and CAL FIRE, to do the work to erase the animosity…Actions speak louder than empty promises," Landis concludes.