Earlier this year, San Diego County officials hired Citygate Associates to conduct a regional fire-deployment study that would assess the county’s fire-service resources, fire-suppression capabilities and shortcomings. The study came after a rash of fast-burning, acreage-charring fires hit the county — including the Station Fire — said Stewart Gary, Citygate’s fire-practice principal. Gary said the six-month-long, standards-of-response-coverage study unearthed coverage gaps and highlighted volunteer personnel shortages in rural areas and then recommended consolidating five 911 centers into two, among other cost-cutting measures.

The study looked at 54 Southern California fire-service based agencies. Gary said in general, researchers found the county fire system to be robust. For example, tough to control wildfire ignitions were being stomped out in two hours and kept to a modest amount of acreage. In addition, the study “reinforced the reality that in not all, but most, of the suburban and urban areas, the deployment system was fairly robust,” he said.

However, fire personnel numbers are down nationwide. And to make it worse, today’s economy means dedicated volunteers are less likely to step away from their 40-hour-a-week jobs to respond to an incident. Gary said the report recognized the issue and recommended that the county place volunteers on a stipend. It also said it should staff each fire station with a minimum amount of people “so that even for a basic EMS call there is a response within an appropriate response time,” he said.

“So we identified some additional staffing strategies, such as more career stations in some communities, and an enhanced volunteer/paid-call firefighter program in the rural communities,” Gary added.

His team also gathered data on the cost of personnel, station building costs and apparatus purchasing. After an analysis of resources and budget, the report recommended improving efficiency by collapsing the counties five regional communications centers into two. Gary said two communication centers easily could handle the entire daily workload if shared 50/50.

“But in the event of a disaster, one comm center could be the backup for the other and in a flick of a switch take over,” he said.

Gary warns that politics within the 54 agencies could stop the consolidation, since some feel they are losing control over their local jurisdictions. However, regional communications centers dispatching separate agencies must reach standardization to make it work, so the report recommends the county establish a coordination council with representative voting from each fire agency. The council then would direct the standardization of policy and resource deployment across the agencies with the help of an executive board — comprised of seven fire chiefs — who would determine the final deployment and catastrophic response polices for the region.

“It wouldn’t be a political consolidation, but it would affect and force policy consolidation operations,” he said.

Gary said chiefs need to improve the data they gather to help measure their effectiveness and the importance of services. They also need to do a better job of articulating the fire service business case to the community, such as resources and monies needed to provide quality services.

“The business case also needs to present cost-effective ways to improve fire services,” he added.

View the report.