Victorville & County Fire Departments Reach Accord To End Delay In Response That Stemmed From Contract Suspension

The City of Victorville and its reestablished municipal fire department have seemingly buried the hatchet with San Bernardino County and its fire protection division.
This week, the Victorville City Council and the county approved a mandatory cooperative aid agreement to logically dispatch their public safety resources in those areas of the city and surrounding county where their jurisdictions and service areas overlap in a way that is intended to ensure the fastest response to emergency situations. The policy replaces one that allowed either department to essentially ignore a potentially life-threatening circumstance that was technically occurring outside that particular department’s jurisdictional service area even when that department was the most logical responder in that its personnel and equipment were physically closer to the location of the incident than all of the other department’s firefighter and paramedic teams.
The normally cooperative attitude of agency-to-agency privilege and coordination between the City of Victorville and San Bernardino County came under challenge to the point of breakdown as the result of multiple shifts going back several decades with regard to the agency entrusted to provide the city with fire protection and emergency medical service.
At the time of its incorporation in 1962, the City of Victorville was indirectly dependent upon the county fire department, which provided supervision of the team of volunteer on-call firefighters that composed the new city’s fire department, which had existed pre-incorporation in one form or another since 1926. In 1976, the city recruited Rudy Cabriales, a one-time border patrol agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service who had transitioned to a career as a firefighter in his hometown of Calexico before rising to become the fire chief of Coachella in Riverside County, to relocate to Victorville and become fire chief of an operation transitioning from being a county-supervised team of volunteers to a professional department. Cabriales built that organization into what some considered to be the premier fire department in the High Desert, and retired after 21 years as fire chief in 1997. Cabriales then ran, unsuccessfully, for the Victorville City Council in 1998. He ran again in 2000, achieving victory and a berth on the council.
In 2004, the Hesperia City Council in a highly controversial move closed out its municipal fire department and contracted with the county fire department for fire safety service.
In 2007, the City of Victorville undertook an intensified discussion of augmenting its fire department with the addition of a licensed paramedic on each of the primary fire engines run out of the city’s three fully-staffed fire stations. The full range of discussions extended to the advisability of phasing in that paramedic capability over the then-upcoming three or four years, or taking a leaf out of Hesperia’s book and instead dissolving the fire department in favor of contracting with the county fire department, which already had paramedics aboard its engines. Ultimately in May 2008, the city council, in a 3-to-2 vote, with Cabriales and then-City Councilwoman JoAnn Almond dissenting, voted to disband the Victorville municipal fire department as of July 1, 2008, and to contract with San Bernardino County and its fire service division for fire protection and emergency medical services.
Cabriales, while at the time of that vote acknowledging that the county fire department was capable of providing an adequate level of service, said he regretted the city surrendering local control of a vital city function, and he insisted the city was every bit as capable of providing its residents with adequate paramedic and emergency medical service as the county.
For ten years, the county fire department functioned as the fire protection service provider and de facto fire department for Victorville. During that interim, the county fire service division reoriented the terms by which it provided fire prevention, fire suppression and emergency medical service to the county’s cities that did not have municipal fire departments of their own. In the timeframe between 2015 and 2017, four of the county’s cities – San Bernardino, Needles, Twentynine Palms and Upland – moved to dissolve their existing municipal or community-based fire departments and allow the county fire division to take on that responsibility within their city limits. In forging those deals, the county arranged to have those cities annex the entirety of their city limits into a county fire service assessment zone, which entailed individual homeowners or parcel owners having to pay an annual assessment, which was at that point pegged in the neighborhood of $150. In addition, those cities agreed to divert a portion of their property tax revenue to the county to pay for the fire protection and paramedic service.
This represented a change in how the county had structured the fire service arrangements with cities in the past, one that formerly involved a simple contractual arrangement by which those cities paid the county a set amount of money out of their operating budgets – referred to as general funds – in return for the service.
Victorville balked at applying the new model – the one applied to San Bernardino, Twnetynine Palms, Needles and Upland – as the ten-year contract entered into in 2008 was winding toward a conclusion, since renewing the service arrangement would have involved annexing the 73.74-square mile city into a fire service assessment zone.
Instead, Victorville moved to recreate the municipal fire department it had closed out in July 2008 and transition back to owning and running the Victorville Fire Department. The county and the advocates of its fire protection division, including the firefighters themselves and their union, did not cotton to the idea of Victorville reasserting itself into the role of directly operating its own fire department. The matter grew somewhat contentious, and the ten-year anniversary of the county takeover of the fire department – July 1, 2018 – came and went with the county fire department still in the role of the city’s service provider.
In March 2009, the city had everything in place to once more take on the responsibility and burden of operating its own department, and the county fire department moved out of Victorville’s fire stations, where the fire engines, paramedic units, pumper trucks and other apparatus and equipment either previously owned by the city or paid for by the city as a part of the ten-year contract were supposed to be left in place.
Shortly thereafter, city officials learned that some of the equipment, tools, gear, implements and tackle had in some cases disappeared or was damaged, in at least a few instances as the result of sabotage, despite the county’s responsibility under the contract signed in 2008 that it maintain and preserve those items.
County officials, somewhat obliquely acknowledged that some damage had occurred, against a backdrop or atmosphere of employee and union resentment over the county’s loss of the Victorville contract.
The contretemps between the city and county fire services was palpable in the very strict protocol that evolved between the two entities immediately after the city fire department resumed operations. That protocol included a somewhat torturous application of a stilted city/county mutual aid agreement, which called for prior authorization for assistance across the city/county boundaries. The terms of the agreement were interpreted in a very strict sense, such that in emergency situations, when a city fire crew was closer to an event in the unincorporated county area outside the periphery of the city than a county fire unit was or when a county fire crew happened to be more proximate to the scene of a fire or medical emergency within the city, neither would respond to the scene of the emergency unless given explicit direction from their respective senior commanders through their dispatch centers to do so. This resulted in response delays in numerous instances, a subset of which entailed some dire circumstances wherein lives were put in danger.
At some point relatively recently, county officials and city officials, sizing up the situation and considering what was at stake – the safety of the public – decided to let bygones be bygones, so that now the principle guiding both departments is the stated intention and practice of “automatic response,” meaning that the closest unit will respond to a request for service even if that requires crossing jurisdictional lines, boundaries or borders.
In a document titled “Agreement for Automatic Aid and Mutual Aid between San Bernardino County Fire Protection District and City of Victorville” ratified by the Victorville City Council on Tuesday February 2, the concept of mutual aid is laid out. Thereafter, the document states, “District and city agree to participate in [a] boundary drop to adhere as closely as practical to the “closest resource concept” for the agreed-upon call types identified in the operating plan and signed by the fire chiefs of [the] district and [the] city.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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