Supporting local fire and emergency services to make San Diego safer

Joan Jones, executive director of the San Diego Regional Fire Foundation.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Joan Jones had extensive experience in strategic planning, finance and accounting at a number of corporations before a co-worker asked her to develop a strategic plan for a nonprofit where he served on the board of directors: It was the San Diego Regional Fire Foundation. The foundation’s board looked at her report and liked it so much, they asked her to become the organization’s executive director.

“I have never looked back,” she says of the role she’s taken on for the past eight years. “It has been one of the most rewarding roles I have ever had.”

The nonprofit was founded 30 years ago to address the needs of underfunded volunteer fire departments in the county. In the years since, the foundation has been raising money for equipment and training for the 29 fire agencies and 250 fire stations in the county, she says, along with public outreach and getting various agencies in different jurisdictions to coordinate in addressing safety issues.

Jones, 65, lives in Carmel Valley with her husband, Jerry. She took some time to talk about her work with the foundation and how people can stay safe and help prevent fires.

Q: Tell us about the San Diego Regional Fire Foundation.

A: The foundation’s mission is to make San Diego the safest county in the nation. We educate the public about safety so San Diegans can learn to be their own first-responders; fundraise to help fire departments obtain needed equipment and implement technologies, and get the training they need; and facilitate multi-agency (city and county governmental agencies, fire departments, nonprofit organizations, community members, and corporations) cooperation around safety issues.

Q: Why did you want to work with them?

A: Working on the strategic plan, I learned so much about the challenges and complexity of our system of fire and emergency services in the region, and I began meeting some of the most incredible people I have ever met. People who are committed to running into a burning building when most of us would run out. People who risk their lives every day for others. How could I not want to do all that I can to support them?

Q: Your website says your organization was founded 30 years ago to strengthen the fire and emergency services system in the county. What was going on with fire and emergency services in the county during that time?

A: Back in the 1970s, due to other budgetary priorities, the county canceled its contract with the California Department of Forestry, which was providing fire protection to the rural, unincorporated areas of the county. Left unprotected, residents in these rural areas that make up 40 percent of the county (from Palomar Mountain in the north to Campo and Jamul in the south) created 30 volunteer fire departments. These fledgling departments received a small amount of funding from the county. However, legislation was passed in 1978 that led to no longer funding these departments. Most of these departments had no taxing authority to raise needed funding, so they were devastated when the county’s funding stopped. They were operating on shoestring budgets, at best, using second- or third-hand equipment. The foundation was formed to support these struggling departments. Our founders felt that San Diego’s system of fire and emergency services was only “as strong as its weakest link,” so they formed the foundation to help these rural volunteer fire departments. In those early days, the foundation was buying fire hose, tires, etc.

Q: And how has the foundation addressed those issues in the years since its founding?

A: Since we were formed, we have raised almost $6 million for equipment and training for the county’s fire departments. We have funded everything from four fire engines and two ambulances to rescue equipment, station upgrades, firefighter training and more.

Currently, we are raising money for a “jaws of life” for the Elfin Forest/Harmony Grove Volunteer Fire Department to serve the main artery between the two fast-growing communities of San Elijo and Escondido. We’re also raising money to replace Lemon Grove Fire Department’s worn out air compressor, which is used to refill firefighter’s air bottles. (Donations for either of these items can be made at

Q: Your organization is also hosting a Home Fire Escape Plan Contest? What can you tell us about the contest?

A: The contest runs through Sept. 29 and is open to all residents of San Diego County. It’s very simple: Contestants must draw a simple sketch of their personal residence showing two escape routes from each room and mark where the smoke/fire alarms are located in the residence. Contestants are required to practice their escape plan with all residents of the home. We will have two $500 prizes. Winners will be randomly selected from contestants meeting the eligibility rules. Contest rules, instructions, a sample escape plan, and the entry form can be found on our website,

Q: What are some quick, basic tips on how people can prepare for something like a home fire? Or a wildfire coming close to your home or job?

A: Plan and practice your home escape plan with everyone in your home twice a year: once at night with no lights on, and during the day. Be sure to teach your children how to escape on their own in case you can’t help them. Your escape plan must have two escape routes from each room. Test your smoke/fire alarms, replace batteries and never disconnect your alarm, register your cell phone at Alert San Diego to receive reverse 911 calls. This could be life-saving if a fire is getting close to your home during the night. Wildfires can move very fast, especially in windy conditions, but don’t rely solely on receiving a call. If you are uncomfortable, leave your home immediately. Make safety planning fun and do it as a family. Good information is available on our website, or at or

Q: What are some beginner-level ways people can help prevent fires?

A: Humans start over 80 percent of fires. Be cautious and think about what you are doing. In red flag conditions when it is hot and dry, be careful not to operate machinery or drive on dry brush in such a way that can create sparks.

Also, look around your property for anything that can burn, and remove it. A clean yard with no dead bushes or trees, no debris piles, etc., is a safer yard. In the house, look for hazards such as frayed wires on things like extension cords; burnable materials, such as curtains near heaters or other heat sources; piles of rags or other flammable debris in confined spaces, like closets; etc. Just like your yard, a clean, neat house is less likely to catch fire than a messy one. Also make sure there is no clutter blocking escape routes. Keep a close watch on burning candles and have at least one fire extinguisher.

Q: What has your work with the foundation taught you about yourself?

A: I never want to retire. Well, maybe I will slow down a little. I enjoy new challenges and opportunities. I have been truly blessed to have worked for strong, innovative companies, and with smart people. I have been involved with so many interesting projects and had so many experiences over the years that I can now give the benefit of this background to public safety, the fire foundation and to other nonprofits that I work with.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: Work hard; be the best you can be at what you decide to do. Also, my Dad’s motto means a lot to me: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I was born in the upper peninsula of Michigan in Marquette, which is right on Lake Superior. I am sure glad my parents moved to California when I was 5 years old. I can’t imagine those horrible winters with several feet of snow. I much prefer life as a California girl.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Go to a great play or concert, dinner and catching up with friends, and a special treat to go on a new adventure to do something I haven’t done before or to see something new. There’s so much to do in San Diego. Weekends are too short!

Q: What do you love about Carmel Valley?

A: The open space and trails. I like being outdoors and taking long walks. It is wonderful to have so many places to enjoy right outside my doorstep. I can take a three- to four-mile hike in my own neighborhood. I don’t need to drive anywhere!

— Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune