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PD Editorial: A 911 call for volunteer fire departments

  • Firefighters from the San Antonio Volunteer Fire Company and other agencies mop up hot spots at a structure fire in a large maintenance unit at Tolay Lake Regional Park on May 31. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County's rural fire departments need help.

When 911 calls come in, these predominantly volunteer agencies often lack the resources to respond promptly.

According to a widely accepted national standard, help should arrive within 15 minutes on 80 percent of emergency calls. That's actually quite modest compared to a standard response of less than five minutes in urban areas.

Yet six of 15 volunteer fire departments in Sonoma County aren't meeting the mark, according to a review of four years of data presented to the Board of Supervisors.

For three departments — Annapolis, Fort Ross and Knights Valley — the initial response missed the 15-minute benchmark on more than 50 percent of emergency calls from 2008 through 2011.

Mark Aston, the chief of the county's fire division, said he's satisfied with the overall performance of the volunteer departments, six of which met the mark on at least 90 percent of their calls. “I think the level of service is appropriate,” he told Staff Writer Brett Wilkison.

We're not satisfied, and we suspect that thousands of people who count on emergency help from volunteer fire departments serving 680 square miles between The Sea Ranch and Lakeville aren't satisfied, either.

But there aren't any simple solutions. If there were, Aston and other fire professionals would have implemented them already. The hang up, of course, is money.

“All options lead to a discussion about dollars,” Supervisor Mike McGuire said, “and, of course, that's the issue we are going to be tested with in the months to come.”

The biggest challenge facing volunteer fire departments in Sonoma County and across the country is a dwindling number of volunteers.

Contributing factors include an aging population and shifting demographics, with more rural residents commuting to jobs rather than working at or near their homes where they can quickly respond to a fire or a medical emergency.

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