Board Of Supervisors Approves Plans Which Give It More Oversight
RIVERSIDE -- The Riverside County Board of Supervisors Tuesday tentatively approved two ordinances that will phase out the county's volunteer firefighting brigade and fold it into a reserve force with stricter standards.
The California Department of Forestry -- Cal Fire -- sought the ordinances out of concern that volunteer units were too often operating independently of full-time crews, creating confusion and potentially exposing the county to liability.
The county has contracted with Cal Fire for public safety services since 1946. More than 350 volunteer firefighters work in unincorporated communities and cities throughout the county, donating their time to battle wildfires and respond to other emergencies, according to the Riverside County Volunteer Firefighters' Association.
Cal Fire proposed a ``Reserve Volunteer Firefighter Program'' over the summer and drafted two ordinances -- 903 and 904 -- that immediately drew criticism from the volunteer association.
The first ordinance empowers the board to decide whether 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. The second measure formally establishes a reserve firefighter program, similar to Orange County's.
Under the new framework, volunteers will be required to undergo background checks, routine medical exams and standardized training. ``Given the increased level of service provided by the fire department, the need for volunteer fire companies has been substantially diminished,'' Cal Fire stated in an introduction to the ordinances.
``In addition, it has become highly problematic that over 60 volunteer fire companies are operating outside the organizational structure of the fire department.''
In September, Tim Young, vice chairman of the volunteer association, called the dissolution plan ``fiscally irresponsible,'' arguing that volunteers supplemented active-duty personnel, received similar training, bought and maintained most of their own equipment and deferred to Cal Fire at emergencies.
The volunteer firefighting cadre has been in existence since before the county's formation in 1893. At a Nov. 9 hearing, the supervisors all expressed appreciation for the volunteers but agreed with Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins that to ensure uniformity, a reserve program was necessary.
``The end product before us ... is a good compromise to make sure we have well-trained, certified folks who we can take comfort will not be hurt performing critical needs for all of us,'' said Supervisor John Benoit, a former volunteer fireman. Supervisor Jeff Stone called the change ``a contentious but necessary transition.'' ``I want to see the volunteer service grow, not diminish,'' Stone said.
Hawkins said many of the volunteer units would be absorbed into the reserve program.
The board is expected to formally approve each ordinance over the next month.