Modesto and Salida fire merger can work if politics are gone


Editorials and other Opinion content offer perspectives on issues important to our community and are independent from the work of our newsroom reporters.

The American Legion Memorial Hall in Modesto’s Tuolumne River Regional Park burns on July 21, 2022.

The American Legion Memorial Hall in Modesto’s Tuolumne River Regional Park burns on July 21, 2022.

Some who remember the ill-fated former merger of the Salida and Modesto fire departments would not be wrong to ask: If it didn’t work before, what makes you think it will now?

It’s a fair question.

When the Modesto Regional Fire Authority was formed in 2011, the new agency drew all kinds of adulation from Modesto and Salida officials, as well as from my opinion-page predecessors. Consolidations saving taxpayer money usually deserve and receive rave reviews.

But MRFA lasted only 3 1/2 years, and some concluded that it’s just impossible to force macho hero-types from different community-centric firehouse cultures to join hands and become one.

That assumption is wrong, as the Modesto Fire Department has been proving in recent times by uniting with departments in Oakdale, rural Oakdale and Ceres, and by taking over fire management duties for Turlock and the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire District, which covers Riverbank, Waterford, Empire, Hickman and LaGrange. Modesto now provides fire services of some sort for three-fourths of the population throughout Stanislaus County.

Modesto is proving, in grand style, that people can learn from their mistakes — meaning the failed experiment with Salida. And the secret really isn’t all that complicated: Get rid of the politics.

MRFA was doomed because its leadership was poorly structured as a joint powers authority, allowing for power struggles at the top.

Modesto Fire took the politics out by simply offering to provide fire protection in a contract. No more turf wars, just services paid for and rendered.

A new deal to reunite Salida and Modesto, now being assembled, follows that model, Modesto Fire Chief Alan Ernst told Bee reporter Ken Carlson.

There is every reason to believe that the past is gone, and that the new deal will work.

Don’t be shocked if Modesto Fire continues its manifest-destiny expansion. I would not be surprised to see yet more fire agencies recognizing the benefits of hitching their water wagon to a larger partner, including access to paramedics trained in advanced life support, and hazmat and technical rescue expertise.

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Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.

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