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County strong-arms volunteer fire departments


May 08, 2013
"I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," Don Corleone said in the Godfather. Thus also spake the County Fire Authority, which for months, in partnership with Cal Fire, has been going to Backcountry volunteer fire departments and making what amounts to hostile takeover attempts.

Some are knuckling under, while some, like the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, are refusing to cede control, despite comments such as these from Supervisor Dianne Jacob ("She Who Must Be Obeyed") who said recently, "If you want the money, you've got to be part of the team." The money is the property taxes local residents pay for fire, and which the County has now decided it wants to control, after many decades of shirking the responsibility to provide fire service, which led to the formation of the volunteer departments in the first place.

Our own Supervisor, Bill Horn, isn't quite so blunt as Jacob, but when asked what he thinks about the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department's attempt to remain its own entity, he said, "Safety is my top priority. I remain hopeful both sides will reach an agreement in the upcoming weeks, as they have in the past, that ensures the continued safety of the community as well as the firefighters. Ultimately, I am obligated to protect the residents of Palomar Mountain, no matter which agency or department we contract with to provide that service." Translation: You gotta be part of the team.

However, it's NOT about safety so much as it is about power, and, interestingly enough, public employees unions, or in this case the union that Cal Fire firefighters belong to.

It started when the Board of Supervisors created the County Fire Authority in 2008. According to its Web site: "The Fire Authority provides support to unify the administration, communications and training of 15 rural fire agencies and to extend 'around the clock' protection to 1.5 million acres of the unincorporated county that previously had either limited, or part-time 'on-call' protection."

Missing from that description is that the Fire Authority will tell the volunteer departments what they can and cannot do in future—and what they must do. The most noticeable change Palomar's volunteers noticed was that requirements to be a volunteer became exactly those to be a Cal Fire member. Most volunteers, who don't normally have to lay hose and climb ladders, couldn't meet those requirements, even though, according to Chief George Lucia, most volunteers provide support for the actual firefighters who do strenuous work.

What a coincidence! Could it be that California's budget crisis has pushed Cal Fire into the business of grabbing every single bit of cash lying around from volunteer fire departments, which can then be staffed by union firefighters? Cal Fire is shutting down volunteer fire departments up and down the state and presumably using the money to keep Cal Fire personnel employed.

Last Saturday representatives of the Fire Authority showed up on Palomar to the fireboard meeting and refused to talk to community members who wanted to question them about the proposed contract. Previously they told the little local fireboard that if it didn't go into closed session with them that they would turn around and go back to San Diego. They also refused to allow the meeting to be videotaped.

It's like Big Al has showed up and declared, "I'm taking over your territory." I grant you that the mobster metaphor may be taking a hit in this piece, but I operate under the theory that, to paraphrase Scarface, a kind word and a strongly worded editorial will take you farther than a kind word alone!

The Palomar department owns its own station and equipment, so the County can't just waltz in and take over. But you can bet that if the Palomar department doesn't start taking orders that it will see its county property tax money vanish and the Volunteers will probably be removed from the County dispatch system.

Taking on City Hall, or in this case, the County, has its risks.

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