"Consolidation" remains a dirty word among most of Stanislaus County's 19 fiercely independent fire departments. But the idea of merging at least some functions to save taxpayer money continues to simmer under the heading "regionalization."
Several city and rural departments have explored combining for many years. Pride, tradition and different pay scales have kept it from happening, except for a partnership that finally joined the city of Oakdale with the Oakdale Rural Fire District in March.
A few months ago, Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District dropped out of four-way talks with Modesto, the Salida Fire Protection District and the county fire warden's office. But the latter three say they continue to inch toward some sort of agreement, despite having fallen short in similar attempts in recent years.
"I believe it won't be too much longer before we have some type of joint agency," said Modesto Fire Chief Jim Miguel, who will become chief of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department on July 6.
The trick could be to forget disbanding at the policy level, which would require some fire board members to give up power, several leaders said. Instead, departments should focus on the idea of continuing to merge some operations and administrators, meaning chiefs and other management, they said.
"We need to identify some areas where we can save agencies some money by increasing efficiencies while providing the same or better levels of service," said Tom Burns, a Salida fire board member.
Salida and Modesto officials and rank-and-file firefighters have enjoyed a good working relationship for years, cooperating on frequent Highway 99 calls along a shared border, Miguel said. County officials directed Stanislaus County Fire Warden Gary Hinshaw to participate in talks as well; his office doesn't staff a traditional fire station, but it provides services such as fire prevention for several agencies.
Hope for agencies 'barely hanging on'
Regionalization talks provide a note of hope in the otherwise depressing proposed budget that county supervisors will consider Tuesday. Acknowledging that "many of our fire agencies are barely hanging on," the 828-page document cites the county's potential for providing "administrative support, internal leadership and program facilitation."
That thought is akin to recommendations of a 2007 civil grand jury, which said county leaders should use their influence to finesse cooperation among the disparate fire agencies. So far, supervisors mainly have shrugged off getting involved with autonomous departments.
The ongoing regionalization efforts are "alive and well," Hinshaw said. Several small, struggling departments are watching Modesto and Salida, he said, and could come on board if the two ever tie a knot.
"Conceptually, I'm a huge proponent," said Stephen Mayotte, Stanislaus Consolidated Fire District chief. His board recently pulled out of negotiations because it wouldn't pencil out in the short term, he said, "but that doesn't mean we won't be interested in the future."
Agencies throughout the county did join hands in a limited fashion when they formed the Stanislaus County Fire Authority five years ago to share training, communications, fire prevention and investigation services. Salida Fire Chief Dale Skiles said "it's worked out very well," and the concept could be extended to other administrative areas.
Mayotte's agency provides another example, having combined with three others in 1995. And the cities of Newman and Patterson share staff and stations with the West Stanislaus Fire Protection District.
Burns, of the Salida board, said, "We want to do it right, so we don't want to rush into it. It is frustrating that it takes a while, but as government goes, we're moving along at a pretty good clip."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.