Three San Diego County cities are looking at consolidating their separate fire departments, a second step in trying to unify fire fighting and costs within this fire-prone county’s fractured network of more than 60 fire agencies, departments and districts.
City managers from El Cajon, La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Santee – four cities in East County with a total population of about 236,000 in 44 square miles – have been meeting to draw up plans and will be carrying those plans to their city councils in the next two weeks.

Santee probably won’t take part in the effort, a source close to the talks said.

“The real bang for the buck is to consolidate services using a joint powers authority where there’s more opportunity for cost savings while delivering the same level of services,” says El Cajon Fire Chief Michael Scott. “We’re going to the councils to see if they want to take the next step.”

Department demographics are giving them a big incentive, Scott notes. Consolidation would eliminate management and support jobs including redundant division, battalion and department chiefs.

“There’s a window of opportunity in the next 18 months when many of our management people become eligible for retirement, Scott says. “That’s one reason we’re pushing the plan now.”

The cities already share training and communications facilities through the Heartland Joint Powers Authority. Now, according to La Mesa council member and retired firefighter Dave Allan, they may be ready to expand the existing cooperations to a consolidated fire department.

“You already get the nearest available fire engine to the fire, we’ve had that in place for a long time,” Allan said. “What we’re looking at is how do we expand this cooperation to share more resources and get some cost savings?

Many people believe San Diego County’s fire fighting is the most fractured of the heavily populated counties in California. Among 18 cities, large swaths of unincorporated areas in the east and north counties, two large military bases (USMC Camp Pendleton alone stands at 125,000 acres), fires are fought by dozens of agencies with separate budgets.

San Diego cities spent about $370 million last year on fire fighting – not including at least $60 million spent in unincorporated areas and on state and federal forces.

Cal Fire, for example, is responsible for 1.5 million acres of state land as well as contracts with cities, according to Cal Fire Unit Chief Howard Windsor. The county is also home to 27 volunteer fire departments.

The county government just returned to the fire fighting business in 2008 after the Cedar fires disaster.

Since the county has no regional fire authority, Cal Fire was the lead agency on the fire. Many believe that Cal Fire policy that prohibits airborne fire-fighting at night proved disastrous for the county.

After the Cedar Fires, county supervisors allowed $15.5 million to begin building a county fire authority by merging 12 rural fire agencies and another $3 million to lease fire-fighting planes.

Discussions among East County cities are the second step in the county plan.

In June 2008, seven fire agencies in the county rural area began the process of unifying their efforts, tying together 50 fire stations from seven agencies in East County into the San Diego County Fire Authority. San

Miguel Fire Chief August Ghio says the recent fire services consolidation does more than “make the map look better by cutting the number of agencies from 65 to 56.

“Not only is the map looking better but the level of coordination and communication to fight fires is so much better,” Ghio says.

Lakeside Fire Protection District Chief Mark Baker says his district is “unofficially very interested” in extending and cementing cooperation with other agencies.

“The economy of scale gives everyone advantages,” Baker says. “A regional organization usually has redundancies so when we have a flat tire we can still deliver services and we can get rid of duplications that use resources inefficiently.

But supporters of local control have to be able to see that there will be gains for sharing, he says.

“It’s not necessarily cheaper, but it can be more efficient to merge departments,” Baker says. “Right now, our training chief also does emergency medical services and our battalion chief also does training and facilities. The fewer hats you wear, the more you can specialize – if the organization is large enough to support it.”