Fire chiefs differ on county contract
The two volunteer chiefs who serve Ramona’s backcountry have differing views of the new contracts for volunteer fire departments being required by the San Diego County Fire Authority.
Cary “Dusty” Coleman, chief of the Intermountain Fire and Rescue Department located eight miles east of Ramona on Highway 78, said that the plan to bring volunteer departments in unincorporated areas under one county agency will allow him to do a better job of training and protecting his firefighters and of serving the community.
Chief Gilbert Turrentine of the San Pasqual Volunteer Fire Department couldn’t disagree more. He said that a new requirement will force at least 100 of the most experienced, hence most valuable volunteers, to hang up their helmets and walk away. (His district includes the majority of the area northeast of Highland Valley and Rangeland Roads, including Highland Hills.)
At issue is one line in the newly required contract, which says that fire agencies must only use “county authorized volunteers.” To become “authorized,” the volunteers must pass a physical exam required for the county to purchase workmen’s compensation insurance.
And there’s the rub. Since many of the volunteers are retired, and older, they have issues, such as being overweight or having high blood pressure, which will keep them from passing the physical.
“This is a tempest in a teapot,” Coleman said. “So far 184 people have successfully completed the physical and only four have failed. Being placed on hold does not mean you’ve failed. It means that you need a note from your doctor or some such thing.”
But Turrentine said that those figures do not reflect the number of volunteers who are refusing to take a physical exam.
“A lot of our volunteers are backcountry folks who have no health insurance,” he said. “If they take the physical and flunk, then if they do go to apply for insurance, they won’t be able to get it. They’re not going to put themselves in that position.”
Turrentine, 73, is the only one of six backcountry chiefs to pass the physical and a stress test on a treadmill, but he’s not cleared yet. He injured his back in a fall from a fire truck three years ago and needs his doctor to rescind an order that he not lift more than 50 pounds.
This issue will be coming to a head soon and neither side seems willing to budge. The county has said that the volunteer departments must sign the new contract by July 1 or they will be replaced.
“With a stroke of a pen, they could wipe out all of the senior members with years of experience and years of working for nothing to build up community fire departments,” Turrentine said. “All we are asking is that they do something with that one line in the contract so we can continue to work for free to provide services to the residents of the backcountry.”
“We value our fire agencies and hope they will sign new contracts,” the county said in a statement released to the media. “If they don’t, it won’t affect fire protection. The county plans to use other volunteers and fire agencies on an interim basis.”
But the six agencies that constitute the Backcountry Volunteer Fire Departments are holding firm against signing the contracts. At their regular monthly meeting on June 18, held in the Sizzler of Ramona restaurant, they discussed their options.
“We agreed to stand shoulder to shoulder and not sign the contracts,” Turrentine said. “We will sink or swim together, and we figured out that it would cost the county $6 million to replace us. We do our own maintenance and repairs, except for brakes, and pay for a lot of things out of our own pockets.”
In addition to the San Pasqual agency, the other five represent the volunteer fire departments of Ocotillo Wells, Ranchita, Shelter Valley, Mount Laguna and De Luz.
If Ramonans think that the fate of these agencies does not affect them, they may be wrong. During the Witch Creek fire in October 2007, the Ocotillo Wells department sent one truck and one water tender to Ramona.
“When it was over, we went back and counted and we had saved 29 houses in Ramona,” Ocotillo Wells Chief Dan Johnson said. “We pulled one horse out of a burning barn. And after the fire passed, we had the water tender out in the backcountry watering animals.”
He pointed out that firefighters brought in from other locations probably would not have thought to water the animals.
The volunteer chiefs believe that this stalemate is coming at a particularly bad time—the start of peak fire season.
“The last thing the county should be thinking about right now is how to replace all the volunteers,” Turrentine said. “Even the green stuff is burning.”
And the chiefs believe that replacements will probably be inexperienced and certainly will not be as familiar as they are with the ins and outs of the backcountry. For example, new recruits could easily get lost trying to answer calls in the middle of the desert, putting lives in jeopardy, Johnson said.
“It’s unbelievable that we have to fight this hard to volunteer,” Johnson added. “And what about the senior volunteers who work with the sheriff’s departments? If this goes through, are they going to be made to take the same kind of test?”
In Ocotillo Wells, virtually all of the calls (450-500 a year) are for medical aid in state parks, on roads and off roads, Johnson said, noting that one doesn’t have to be in peak physical shape to respond to these kinds of emergencies. “And I know where they are and how to find them,” he said.
On the other side of the coin, Coleman said that backcountry firefighters have been trying for years to get the county to take more responsibility in rural areas, and he’s pleased that the Board of Supervisors formed the San Diego County Fire Authority to oversee 27 volunteer agencies. The county set aside $15.5 million to do the job and promised each agency $30,000 for operational expenses so they would no longer have to rely on spaghetti dinners and other fund-raisers.
“Yes, the first few steps may be painful, but will we come out a better organization at the other end? Absolutely,” Coleman said.
He is particularly pleased that the new contract allows him to run background checks on prospective volunteers since “we go into people’s homes and I don’t want to violate the public’s trust.”
Is there any solution to this impasse on the horizon?
“I’m a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, so I am thinking positive,” Turrentine said, but there are not many hopeful signs he can point to. The backcountry chiefs’ monthly meeting is usually attended by various county representatives and nary a one showed up last week. He said that calls by himself and others to County Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s office have not been returned.
“Jacob says that she supports the volunteers and that we are a valuable resource,” he said. “She’s in a position to do something about this, so I hope she is listening. I’ve been on her committees for years and we’ve talked about creating a county fire department, but at no time was it mentioned that we’d get rid of the volunteers.
“I finally got to talk to a live person in Supervisor Bill Horn’s office and the best I got from him is that he can see both sides of the issue.”
Compromises offered by the backcountry chiefs have been rejected by the county. For example, they proposed a two-tier system where young volunteers seeking a career in firefighting would take the physical and accept the county’s workmen’s comp insurance, but the others would be allowed to forego the physical and provide their own insurance.
Soon the “drop-dead deadline” of July 1 will be here.
“Guess we’re all going to have to take our county fire trucks down to 1600 Pacific Highway (the county administration center), park them in the lot and walk away,” Turrentine said. But with more than 50 years as a volunteer firefighter, “I think they are going to have to take me to jail to get me out of here.”
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