Fire president discusses past year and hope for future

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The Idyllwild Fire Protection District had a busy and tumultuous year. As expenses continued to outpace revenue, the commission explored a couple of options to grow its revenue. 

Ultimately, neither the joint powers authority for San Jacinto nor Measure W succeeded. Both appeared to be headed for a win, but they both failed to gain sufficient and necessary support.

Last week, Jerry Buchanan, president of the IFPD commission, discussed with the Town Crier these efforts, the consequences of their failures and potential future direction. 

“Idyllwild Fire is a valuable resource to the community and provides a high level of service,” he stressed. “We’re here to stay.”

Buchanan is an adherent of local fire and emergency service. He acknowledges that IFPD could be replaced in the worse case and the service from Riverside County would be available. “Bigger is not always better,” in his opinion. Having a team whose sole area is focused on Idyllwild is an advantage. 

With lower turnover and regular staffing, knowledge of the area and of the residents is acquired and retained. They understand the roads and terrain, and politics. 

A larger organization with smaller and changing staff is unlikely to develop this closeness, he believes. “With people shuffling in and out it’s not the same focus of attention,” he said.

“But how do we improve the service? And how do we make people realize its benefits?” he posed. “We’ll need to better communicate with the public in the future.”

Being smaller has problems, he admits. “Number one is, we’ll always need money.”

The financial issues are complex. People who are transported to a medical center or receive walk-in assistance are more than willing to pay for that service. But unlike a restaurant, where patrons pay only for the food and drink they consume, the fire and emergency medical services depend upon being available every day, every hour. 

Consequently, the costs include ensuring staffing will be available whenever someone is in need. It is insurance on a more personal and local level.

Buchanan was happy that nearly 57 percent of the votes cast for Measure W, which would have doubled the local parcel fee from $65 to $130, were “yes.” In 2011, a similar measure (G) received only 40 percent “yes” votes. Even Buchanan and commissioner Larry Donahoo opposed it back then.

But getting the 66.7 percent necessary for passage was an even bigger hurdle. 

“We’ll have to analyze it and see what we could have done differently,” he promised. 

The next time (not specified), Buchanan feels that “we should focus all the money on equipment, the building and infrastructure, and not on salaries and benefits.”

The November ballot was not the best election for local revenue measures. About 40 percent of local tax measures were defeated. The long ballot with 17 separate propositions tended to reduce time on local proposals.

“We picked the worse possible election,” he lamented.

However, the turnout for Measure W resulted in the greatest number of voters casting ballots for an IFPD election in more than 20 years. It was more than twice the number of votes cast on Measure G in 2011.

Buchanan is also disappointed that San Jacinto city withdrew its support for the validation litigation over the JPA between the city and IFPD. 

“The litigation was getting prohibitively expensive. We were fighting the county, the union and vested interest.” He hopes the parties can re-trench and perhaps re-think the idea. “It’s still a possibility in a different form, not the same.”

JPAs are not new. They began as a way to buy and provide insurance for a similar group of agencies, Buchanan explained. The Special District Risk Management Agency is the IFPD insurer. “But it’s just one big JPA,” he said.

“We have to identify what services in the local communities we can share with other agencies in or out of our territory,” he foresees. “The important part of a JPA is shared service.”

The cost of fire and ambulance programs can get expensive, Buchanan opined. “Fire danger never ends.”

IFPD can provide more service on the Hill. Buchanan stressed that he is concerned to see other fire trucks and medical vehicles flash past the IFPD station on the way to Mountain Center, when IFPD could get to those incidents sooner. 

“We’re not in it for the money,” he stressed. Those could be Idyllwild or Pine Cove people involved.

“Sure, if you transport we may collect, but the important question is availability of service to be there,” he added. “If we have services to provide, use us.”

He questioned the timing of backup service to help when American Medical Response is transporting a patient from Pine Cove. They call for backup help from Banning or Beaumont, and IFPD is just down the road.

“Both could benefit just like joint fires,” he said. “We’ve got to talk about the benefit and what can change. Each of us can benefit.

“It’s not the differences. Or whether we’re taking work out of the hands of Cal Fire firefighters. It’s how do we all benefit the community,” Buchanan said. “We can help each other.”

But the nitpicking and carping on both sides needs to stop, he stressed. “I don’t know when it started, but the question is who can better serve or provide better back-up.” In his opinion, those who come to the joint staff meetings just to criticize should stop coming.

Acknowledging defeat at the polls and in courts, Buchanan believes an emphasis on service provision, without bureaucratic competition, is the secret going forward. While IFPD will analyze the past 12 months, the future will focus on assistance for Hill residents.

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