With the number of choices for providing fire service to San Carlos dwindling as the October dissolution of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire JPA looms nearer, the option of having a standalone fire department in San Carlos is once again on the table, according to this article in the Mercury News. When the County of San Mateo effectively blocked the option of extending its contract with CalFire to cover San Carlos, it left Redwood City as the only interested suitor to provide fire services to the City of Good Living. And like any good governing body, the City Council of San Carlos wants more than one option to consider, especially for a critical service such as this.
Supporting a standalone fire department is a costly proposition, as San Carlos and many other communities on the Peninsula have determined. It will likely take a restructuring of the fire organization, or some method of increasing revenue (or both) to make it an economically sustainable model. And that has been a tall order to fill lately in San Carlos.
Is a County-Wide Fire Department in Our Future?
San Carlos is not alone in its struggle to find an economically feasible method for providing fire services to its community. Even the City of Belmont recently analyzed their own budget and came to the conclusion that they won’t have the funds to support their own standalone fire department — despite the fact that they already have a dedicated stream of funding from their general budget. And there isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t hear about some other Peninsula community that’s fighting the exact same budget battle.
With more Peninsula communities seriously considering the path that San Carlos chose to provide police service through the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department, the question begs to be asked: Should we have a true San Mateo County Fire Department? (i.e. not one that’s simply contracted out through another entity such as CalFire.)
The economies of scale would be remarkable for an an arrangement like this. Here are just a few examples:
- Centralized County Dispatch. That’s already in place today.
- Reduced Administrative Overhead. No need for 20+ fire chiefs in a streamlined organization.
- Buying Power. If the County standardizes on fire fighting equipment, it would have much more buying power than each municipality would on its own.
- Boundary Drop. In theory, this arrangement should make it easier to manage calls that extend across city boundaries, since there’s only one organization to coordinate.
Obviously, this option is much more simple in theory. The reality is that such an arrangement would be incredibly complicated to create with so many communities involved. But if the Sheriff’s Department model is so successful for small communities like San Carlos, you have to think a similar model for fire services isn’t too far behind.
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