Riverside County supervisors postponed action today on a Cal Fire proposal to fold the county’s 500-member volunteer firefighter force into a new reserve firefighter program with stricter standards.
“There are more steps that need to be taken before we (proceed with) this,” said Supervisor John Benoit, a volunteer fireman. “There have been concerns raised by a number of people.”
The Riverside County Volunteer Firefighters Association has blasted the proposal.
Cal Fire, which contracts with the county to provide fire protection services, wants to start a “Reserve Volunteer Firefighter Program,” requiring members to undergo background checks, routine medical exams and standardized training.
The state agency wants ordinances that enable the board to decide if volunteer fire companies are needed and, if so, which ones. If an existing unit is found to be unnecessary, it would be phased out in six months. No new volunteer units would be formed without the board’s express consent, under Cal Fire’s plans.
The board put off a decision today and rescheduled the issue for its Sept. 14 meeting.
“Given the increased level of service provided by the fire department, the need for volunteer fire companies has been substantially diminished,” according to Cal Fire’s proposal to the board. “In addition, it has become highly problematic that over 60 volunteer fire companies are operating outside the organizational structure of the fire department.”
The agency complained that volunteer firefighters have responded to emergencies without authorization, resulting in “mismanagement of incidents.”
According to Cal Fire, volunteers often are not properly trained, fail to keep adequate records and operate equipment that Cal Fire has not approved.
The agency suggested that the county is exposing itself to civil liability by not having tighter rein on the volunteer force.
The proposal calls for a reserve company modeled after the sheriff’s reserve program, with the fire chief having complete control over reserve functions.
“We’re just looking at refining the volunteer program with more professionalism,” said Supervisor John Tavaglione. “There’s merit in the reserve program. Change is always difficult going from one system to the next.”
The Riverside County Volunteer Firefighters Association issued a statement last week countering that most of Cal Fire’s claims were “peppered with misinformation and untruths.”
“We just have to set the record straight, because what they’ve said in their proposal is just wrong,” said association treasurer Bruce Connole.
He noted that the volunteer force has been an integral part of the county’s public safety apparatus since before the county’s founding in 1893.
According to the fireman, volunteers are dispatched to calls by Cal Fire and always defer when active-duty fire personnel arrive at the scene.
He said volunteers undergo annual medical exams and are trained according to standards “developed and managed by the Riverside County Fire Department.”
According to Connole, volunteer companies keep membership records which are “reviewed and signed by each Cal Fire liaison.”
“They (Cal Fire) help select and train us, provide us personal safety equipment and supervise us on incidents,” Connole said. “We always operate as a team to serve the public.”
According to Connole, in 2008, volunteers provided 300,000 hours of free time to the county, equating to $6.1 million in services.