By Marlena Chavira-Medford
It’s not often city officials find a way to save tax dollars while improving services for their residents — especially if it involves navigating uncharted territory. However, the Fire Department Shared Management Services between Solana Beach, Del Mar, Encinitas and Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District is seemingly the exception to the norm.
After just one year, the program has already saved more than $1 million in tax dollars cumulatively across the four communities it serves: Solana Beach has saved $124,200; Del Mar has saved $226,000; Encinitas has saved $229,000; and the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District has saved $432,832. And thanks to the command realignment it brought about, battalion chiefs are now just minutes away instead of having to be paged in from places as far away as Vista. That’s important because though firefighters serve as frontline responders, a battalion chief acts as the logistical command center during an emergency.
“A battalion chief can stand back and assess the situation and be that extra safety watch out, it’s a very important role,” explained Solana Beach City Manager David Ott, who helped design and launch the program.
Serving as fire chief in Del Mar and Solana Beach from 2003 to 2006, Ott gained a deep insight to fire services and soon realized it made sense for smaller communities like these to join forces. That lack of a unified firefighting service within the county became especially apparent in the wake of the devastating 2003 Cedar wildfires, he said. It was around that time he started exploring the possibility of establishing a joint-effort program, something that had never been done locally. Finally getting Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar and Solana Beach all on one page was no small feat.
“We were working with four local governments, and each had its own different policies and training procedures,” Ott said. “Condensing all of those was a challenge. I think the initial tendency was to get everything perfect. We eventually just realized that we were never going to get it perfect, so we agreed to resolve the issues as they came up.”
And though the program’s first year has “gone better than most thought it would,” there have been a few tweaks along the way. The program has gone through two realignments, further consolidating the positions and duties shared by the four communities. Ott said the program will likely continue to evolve as needed in time and, currently, an ad hoc committee is exploring some governing options, like a joint-powers-authority.
“Overall, the success of this program has been a pleasant surprise,” he said.
The program has done so well, in fact, that some communities in East County are looking to this program as a blueprint of sorts. The program’s model is especially relevant now in the midst of a down economy and budget cuts, which is forcing firefighters to learn how to do more with less — a model that could potentially work with other city services. The program, Ott added, worked because “everyone bought into the idea that this was a good thing.”
“This program has allowed us to provide a higher level of service for a cheaper cost,” he said. “It’s been a positive, rewarding program and we’re looking forward the program’s continued success.”