GE Fire Dept. taking a step into the future
After more than a year of discussions and negotiations, the Glen Ellen Fire Department (GEFD) is entering into a contract with another valley department to provide emergency fire and medical services.
GEFD isn’t going away at all, far from it. But the decreasing number of volunteers has eroded the department’s ability to ensure timely emergency response to the residents who live within the 18 square miles of the Glen Ellen Fire Protection District.
The Glen Ellen district’s board of directors was scheduled to give final approval on April 13 (after this edition went to press) to a contract with the Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District (VOM), which operates as the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority (SVFRA). The contract had already been signed by the VOM board a couple of days earlier.
The deal will provide Glen Ellen with uninterrupted service by having a VOM captain and engineer/paramedic on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Glen Ellen Fire Department volunteers will still be needed and available for calls.
“This looks good for both parties,” said Glen Ellen board member Bob Norrbom at an April 11 board meeting. “This will result in a lot better coverage than we’ve had recently.”
The contract, which also includes costs for administrative and management services, is for five years, and renewable after that. The first year’s price tag is about $730,000, with year five costing $988,000. Increases over the five-year period are due in part to state-mandated minimum wage increases.
At the April 11 meeting, both Glen Ellen and VOM officials emphasized that the Glen Ellen Fire Department would remain an important part of the fabric of the community, and continue to carry out traditions such as the Mother’s Day Pancake Breakfast, Easter Egg Hunt, and annual dinner and dance.
Steve Akre, fire chief of SVFRA, said he’s “a big believer in fire departments being actively involved in the community.”
He also underlined the fact that Glen Ellen volunteers are a “valued, key component,” of the agreement, and will continue to have access to specialized training and equipment.
Like other volunteer fire departments across Sonoma County, Glen Ellen has had increasing difficulty recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters. Not so long ago Glen Ellen had an average of 35 volunteers, but now that number is down to about 10.
The reasons for the reduced numbers are many. Demographic changes in areas like Glen Ellen are a main cause – high housing prices have resulted in fewer full-time residents, dramatically reducing the pool of people to recruit from.
In addition, over the years the State of California has steadily increased the number of training hours required to be a volunteer, and fewer people have the time to put into being a volunteer.
George Psaledakis, president of the Glen Ellen Firefighters Association, wrote in an email that in his personal opinion, GE district officials could have been more proactive years ago in looking into other options, and that the current deal is financially advantageous for both parties.
Psaledakis pointed to the lack of affordable housing in Glen Ellen and elsewhere as the main problem for firefighter recruitment. He encouraged the Glen Ellen board “to think longer term and get creative about partnering with a nonprofit or the County Affordable Housing Coalition to develop designated affordable housing in Glen Ellen to serve our firefighters.”
After the contract is signed by both parties, the agreement will have to be blessed by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the body that regulates the boundaries of special districts and cities.
In this case, LAFCO won’t be looking at moving the current district lines of Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District or the Glen Ellen Fire Protection District. LAFCO is involved because of rules having to do with the fact that VOM is absorbing all Glen Ellen employees and volunteers, as well as providing service to over 25 percent of the Glen Ellen district (100 percent in this instance).
LAFCO approval is expected to take place at the commission’s June meeting.
The contract is scheduled to officially go into effect on July 1.