Posted by: Bonnie Phelps | May 9, 2013

PMVFD/County Contract Update


Please read the links:

Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Dept. resists takeover by County

May 08, 2013
The County of San Diego’s Fire Authority is making the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Dept. (PMVFD) an offer it can’t refuse. Literally.

Saturday the PMVFD asked for more time from the County to negotiate points it disagrees with in the service contract the County wants to impose. The current contract expires at the end of June.

The County claims the little department that serves about 350 residents has no choice but to accept its terms. It doesn’t spell out what will happen if it does not, but the Volunteers assume they would lose all County funding. Since Cal Fire and the County Fire Authority operate in tandem, PMVFD could also lose the ability to use the dispatch service that answers 911 calls and sends emergency providers to answer them.

A key sticking point is the County’s insistence that it be able to send Palomar assets to other districts, even if it leaves the mountain uncovered.

Under the proposed contract, such decisions would be taken away from the local fire chief and board. The County also insists that volunteers must pass the same physical standards as Cal Fire firefighters, even volunteers used only for administrative positions. This kind of insistence prompts Chief George Lucia to insist that “one size does not fit all.”

Palomar’s reluctance to be forced into a contract it doesn’t like puts it in good company with several Backcountry departments that are part of something like a sagebrush rebellion. The two most vocal departments are the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District and the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District in Jamul.

On Saturday representatives of the Fire Authority and Cal Fire visited the PMVFD board to discuss the contract. They insisted on meeting behind closed doors with the board and threatened to drive back down the mountain if directors let the public sit in on the negotiations, or tried to videotape the conversation.

The fireboard acceded to those demands and four hours later reported back to the public, most of who had gone home.

Before it went into closed session it had had an open meeting with about 40 residents. Most indicated that they didn’t want the board to give in to the County’s demands.

They heard a presentation by Ronny Coleman, a hired advisor to the board, who once served as fire marshal for the state of California and former fire chief of Fullerton, San Clemente and Santa Rosa. Coleman’s white paper, entitled Future of the Palomar Fire Department, spelled its options and what might result if it does not sign the contract.

Coleman said Palomar has the ability to go its own way. It is a not-for-profit firefighting entity that owns its own land and equipment, and cannot be forced to shut down by the County or base its engines in the department’s firehouse without permission. It was established in the 1970s when the County chose not to exercise its authority to fight fires. If it doesn’t sign a contract with the Fire Authority, it could conceivably continue to fight fires and answer medical calls.

Coleman, who interviewed board members and members of the community, assembled a statement that encapsulated the opinions of the largest number of Palomar residents: “The Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Dept. is interested in becoming an active participant in a regional cooperative effort, but not at the price of losing all rights of self-determination in its own area. We are interested in negotiating in good faith, but are not interested in a unilateral imposition of criterion that is not based up our local needs. The board would prefer to have a collaborative and cooperative atmosphere in which to conduct business and to provide services.”

Fire Chief George Lucia told The Roadrunner after the meeting, “My trust in both organization continues to diminish as the tenure of the proposal was to take over the community volunteer fire department with no exception or consideration, just as has and is happening all over the State of California by Cal Fire.” Lucia added, “My ability as the local fire chief to provide prompt and efficient emergency services to the community of Palomar Mountain continues to be restricted by Cal Fire and SDCFA despite my resistance.”

PMVFD handles about ten calls a month. As the only emergency provider on the Mountain, it responds to incidents within minutes, rather than the 45 minutes other emergency units take to respond. On Easter Sunday it battled a single structure fire on Crestline and kept it from spreading to other homes for most of an hour until mutual aid arrived.

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