An abandoned dairy barn in unincorporated Oakley, Calif. caught fire just after noon on Friday, May 28, 2021. The origin of the fire is under investigation.

Just as it seemed that a crucial decision on the consolidation of the East Contra Costa (ECCFPD) and Contra Costa County (ConFire) fire protection districts was within sight, a last-minute scheduling conflict caused the cancellation of ConFire’s board of directors meeting Tuesday afternoon, July 13.

The board was expected to consider the final feasibility study on the merger after the full report was released late last week. The report’s key finding is that the three fire agencies covered by the study – ConFire, ECCFPD and the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District (RHFD) – should move forward with consolidation, also referred to as annexation.

“Based on the analysis, annexation will increase both the effectiveness and efficiency of the service delivery system and the efficiency of the administrative functions,” stated the report.

The recommendation was supported by the report’s finding that anticipated revenue for the consolidated district would be sufficient to fund current and expanded services throughout the five-year period identified in the project’s scope of work. Additionally, the study found no operational impediments to consolidation.

“I was excited to read the feasibility study indicating that combining the agencies will greatly improve fire and medical services for residents within a short timeframe,” said Diane Burgis, Contra Costa County District 3 supervisor. “I support the recommendation and I’m confident my colleagues will as well. I’m disappointed we couldn’t do it yesterday as this has long been my top priority. We’ve scheduled a special meeting for the 20th and I expect it to pass.”

Consolidation with ConFire has been viewed as a means to improve fire and rescue services in East County. Persistent funding challenges created by the peculiarities of Proposition 13 have plagued the ECCFPD since its formation in 2002. Several attempts to improve funding with tax measures have failed over the years. A recent effort to gain support for a benefit assessment was beginning to show signs of promise after the district waged a campaign to raise public awareness of its funding problems. However, the economic challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic likely erased any hope of passing a new tax measure for at least the foreseeable future.

The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors (BOS) also serves as the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Board of Directors. The issue was scheduled to be considered at 1 p.m., but BOS discussion related to the Tassajara Parks Residential Project pushed the start time back several hours. By then, people scheduled to present the study to the fire board were no longer available. It is expected that ConFire’s board will take up the issue at a special meeting scheduled for July 20.

“I was disappointed that the Contra Costa County Fire Board wasn’t able to take up the consolidation topic at Tuesday’s meeting,” said Brian Oftedal, president of the ECCFPD Board of Directors. “I was hoping that I would be able to get a better sense of any outstanding concerns or issues from their directors prior to our fire board meeting.”

If ConFire’s board approves the resolution calling for consolidation, it will result in a request to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to annex the ECCFPD and RHFD service areas into ConFire’s service area. The same request will dissolve the ECCFPD and RHFD. It is expected that LAFCO will require approximately six months to complete those actions. Should ConFire’s directors not approve the resolution to consolidate the districts, the effort will be, for all intents and purposes, dead in the water.

“Last year, along with our fire partners East Contra Costa Fire and Rodeo-Hercules Fire, we initiated an important feasibility study to determine the potential benefits of annexing either, or both, of these districts into ConFire,” said ConFire Fire Chief Lewis T. Broschard III. “These possible consolidations have long been informally considered and this formal study, to be briefed to each of the three boards beginning this week for their consideration and action, will now give us hard data upon which to base decisions on provision of fire services to much of the county.”

The “Fire District Annexation Feasibility Study” runs for more than 270 pages, though its findings and recommendations were summarized in a smaller, 28-page presentation. Included in the study’s other recommendations pertaining directly to ECCFPD were the opening of Station 55 in Oakley and addition of a fire truck company. These actions would increase the number of companies in the 249 square-mile district from three to five, but would still be one company shy of the six needed according to the agency’s strategic plan.

Last month, ECCFPD officials announced that Station 55, which was completed in 2019 but never staffed due to budget restrictions, will become operational in 2022 no matter the outcome of the consolidation study. The district does not currently have a fire truck, which is characterized by its large, hydraulically operated ladder in its inventory.

As of press time, the ECCFPD Fire Board was scheduled to discuss the study during its July 14 board meeting. The staff report submitted by ECCFPD Fire Chief Brian Helmick, who took over as the district’s chief in 2018, recommends that the ECCFPD board consider a resolution requesting that LAFCO initiate annexation proceedings.

AP Triton Consulting, LLC, a Sacramento-based consulting firm specializing in the study of fire and emergency services, was engaged to complete study of the feasibility of consolidating ConFire and the ECCFPD in Sept. 2020. The phase one study was delivered to the boards of both agencies the following December. That initial report concluded there was sufficient evidence to warrant a more exhaustive phase two study, and the ECCFPD board approved the expenditure of up to $30,000 for the effort. The phase two study added the RHFD to the mix and projected a five-year forecast of financial and operational impacts of the potential consolidation of the three districts.

“Overall, I am excited to see the results of the study, as well as the recommendation to initiate the annexation process in the ConFire adjunct staff report,” Oftedal said. ”The fact that this report is suggestive that consolidation is possible, and it would improve service levels for our communities is pretty incredible. ConFire is a very well respected organization in the California fire service arena, and I trust that our communities would be in good hands.”