Chief George Lucia of the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department (PMVFD) this week announced his retirement from that post, ostensibly to spend more time with his grandchildren and wife. The chief made a special point of stating that he was “retiring” rather than “resigning.”
Fire board Treasurer Keith Ronchetti issued an announcement for the board of the staff change: “George E. Lucia has made a personal decision to retire as PMVFD Fire Chief effective immediately, although he remains a member of the department.”
However, the chief’s issuance of a report to the Palomar fire board two weeks ago that called into question his ability to keep the mountain community safe hints that perhaps there is more to the chief’s decision than just a desire to spend more time with family. Especially since Lucia has for two years been warning the board with increased urgency that he could not guarantee the safety of the mountain’s residents under the department’s current arrangement with the county Fire Authority. That arrangement was continued
for another year in June when the board extended its contract with the CFA.
In Lucia's document, entitled "Declaration of Deployment Analysis," which the fire board received on Aug. 3 but didn't publish because individual directors wanted the chance to read it first, the chief wastes no time declaring, "The PMVFD current is at a dangerously low staffing level that is putting current firefighters, residents and visitors of our community in danger."
He adds, "The data supports the fact that the current 'one size fits all' policy of the San Diego County Fire Authority has diluted good fire protection in our community to give way to providing fire service in other areas of San Diego County that are underserved or not protected, something that the county supervisors repeatedly promised would never happen." The former chief urged the board to adopt his document, and warned that time is running out.
"Our opportunity to revive the Palomar Mountain Community Volunteer Fire Department is passing the golden hour and may die soon. It is feared that the San Diego County Supervisors' commitment to Backcountry fire protection may diminish with term limits, fire not being in the county charter and changes in economic priorities."
He recommended as soon as possible reestablishing an "active volunteer force" of no fewer than 12 firefighters to be able to respond to incidents within 30 minutes. He called for adding a station near the observatory and staffing it with another 12 volunteers and for establishing a long range capital improvement program to be able to buy new fire engines.
Lucia proposes that the answer to this problem, "on a proactive basis is to adopt a flexible system of firefighters, one side being SDCFA (San Diego County Fire Authority) career bound, experience seeking firefighters to assist local volunteer fire departments when available along with the other side, local PMVFD community volunteer firefighters, that may not be all risk but are available day and night at no cost and reduced training standards, as community stakeholders." He added, "This parallel system would actually cost less tax dollars and return home rule to our community."
Two we e k s a f t e r t h e board received Lucia's recommendations, it has not acted on them. Two weeks after presenting the recommendations, and without the board acting on them, Lucia suddenly announced his retirement.
Although Lucia is retiring as fire chief on the mountain he remains as fire marshal of the Valley Center Fire Protection District, a job that was unrelated to his unpaid position as chief .
Lucia steps down after nearly eight years of leading the department, a department that has, under the regulations imposed by the County Fire Authority in the last two years, seen its membership steadily decline — and seen its very existence as an independent entity questioned.
When he was installed as chief in the fall of summer of 2005, Lucia spoke glowingly of the volunteers. "Whenever a beeper goes off, they drop whatever they are doing. Usually the call comes on a weekend, which is their busiest time."
The 43-year veteran of firefighting told The Roadrunner at that time "Right now I see this as the biggest challenge I have faced. I would be very satisfied capping my career on Palomar Mountain."