CHARLES GUEST/THE ENTERPRISE / Los Banos Enterprise

CHARLES GUEST/THE ENTERPRISE A firefighter attacks a flare-up through the broken windows on the north side of the Kar Kare autoparts store in Dos Palos. Firefighters were able to keep the flames from spreading to the gas station next door. The autoparts business was completely gutted by the large fire on Saturday.

Fire pact OK'd for West Side of Merced, Stanislaus counties

Published: Monday, Jul. 22, 2013 - 10:29 pm

The Board of Supervisors approved an "automatic aid agreement" between the county's Fire Department and two neighboring agencies at its Tuesday meeting, in a bid to improve emergency response times in some parts of Merced County.

The unanimous vote clears the way for contracts between the Merced County Fire Department, the West Stanislaus County Fire Protection District and the Newman City Fire Department.

The agreements mandate that the closest fire units will automatically respond to emergencies, regardless of county boundaries.

Fire officials on each side say the move is a win-win situation because it reduces response times and provides a higher level of service to residents.

"It shouldn't come down to being worried about boundaries or who the property belongs to," said Mark Lawson, division chief of Merced County Fire Department. "The taxpayers don't know the difference and they don't care what color the engine is. They just want the closest resources in the least amount of time."

Fire Chief Nancy Koerperich of the Merced County Fire Department said that unlike mutual aid, an automatic-aid agreement means the county's Fire Department won't have to "request" help — it will automatically get it.

"The difference is, the moment we are notified of an emergency, both entities would be responding in automatic aid," Koerperich said. "It decreases your response time and gets help to the emergency faster, regardless of the jurisdiction."

A similar agreement exists between Merced County and the city of Atwater, Lawson said. The city of Dos Palos also has an agreement to provide help to Fresno County, which pays for the service.

The contracts approved on Tuesday require no payment from either side, unless fire crews are on-scene longer than 12 hours. Lawson said that rarely happens in local emergencies.

Fire Chief Mel Souza of Newman City Fire Department said the decision comes at a time when most agencies are lacking manpower and need the extra help.

"It's harder to get volunteers anymore," Souza said. "So this helps both cities, because we all have a shortage of manpower."

The automatic aid agreements should benefit the harder-to-reach West Side of Merced County, including Los Banos, Gustine and Hilmar, Lawson said.

In Stanislaus County, it will provide a boost to Patterson and Newman.

Stanislaus County District 5 Supervisor Jim DeMartini said the agreements should help the rural and isolated parts of both counties.

"The West Side is an isolated area, especially Newman, Patterson and Gustine. They're isolated from other parts of the county," DeMartini said. "What it does is share assets when there's an emergency, and it makes sense."

Merced County District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey agreed, saying political boundaries shouldn't matter when it comes to life-saving services.

"I don't think it matters which political jurisdiction you come from, as long as the service is timely, because time is of the essence," said Kelsey, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors.

"It will be a much better service to those living on the West Side, close to the county line. This way we're mandated to cover each other," she said.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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