Volunteers to remain unpaid; reactions mixed among area residents
January 28, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – On Tuesday, San Diego’s Board of Sueprvisors voted unanimously to consolidate five additional volunteer fire departments in unincorporated backcountry areas (Boulevard, Campo, Mount Laguna, Palomar Mountain, and San Pasqual) into the County’s newly created Regional Fire Authority.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob has said that the consolidation will make firefighting more efficient in battling firestorms such as those in 2003 and 2007. Communication is expected to improve, officials have said.
The volunteer firefighters will not receive salaries, however, for their services. County officials contend that they cannot afford to pay the salaries and benefits of firefighters in our reigon.
The move continues consolidation that began last year, bringing volunteer districts in De Luz, Intermountain, Ocotillo Wells, Ranchita, Shelter Valley, and Sunshine Summit into the County Regional Fire Authority, which will be headed up by Chief Howard Windsor.
Next up, the County plans to merge an additional set of volunteer districts, including Pine Valley and Jamul, which would bring a total of 1.56 million acres under county control for firefighting.
The latest merger must still be approved by the Local Agency Formation Commission.
The mergers have been met with mixed reviews among East County residents.
“This is a good thing,” said Ray Lutz, founder of Citizens Oversight Projects and a resident of unincorporated El Cajon. Lutz said streamlining districts makes sense to keep overhead costs down.
But Wendy Paddilla Fenner, an Alpine resident, voiced concerns. “My husband and I lost our home and two businesses in the Cedar Firestorm,” she said. “What is the incentive for an unpaid volunteer to work 90 miles away from his or her area? I see a fire in any part of our East County as a threat to all, as we have witnessed.” But she asked, “When fires are breaking out everywhere, as they have in the past, what makes this service a reality? Is it every man for himself?”
In comments posted on a North County Times story on the issue, posters suggested that volunteer firefighters deserve to be paid for their efforts.
Jacob, who has led the consolidation efforts, believes consolidation will allow for faster response times to medical emergencies as well as fires. "We remember the dark days of the 2003 firestorms, and it's amazing how much progress we've made in a relatively short amount of time," she said, according to CBS 8 News. "The fractures were deep and wide, and communication and coordination were deeply lacking…We're making giant strides toward our goal of a regional authority.”