For decades, tribal fire departments have responded to fires or accidents off their reservations under a mutual aid agreement with the county.
But last month, the county notified the tribes that it was going to terminate those agreements and replace them with ones that would require the tribes to relinquish some of their sovereign immunity that protects them from legal liability.
For some tribes, that's too big an ask.
Of the 11 tribes that have fire departments operating in San Diego County, only six have current mutual aid agreements with the county. And of the five tribes that provide ambulance service, only two have agreed to the new terms.
That has prompted the county to suspend three tribes from assisting with ambulance calls until they sign a new contract.
The county said the change, prompted after the Board of Supervisors in May directed the San Diego County Fire Protection District to take over ambulance service, protects taxpayers from possible negligence.
"Without this provision, the county, and by extension taxpayers, could be financially impacted by a claim where the other agency is solely negligent," said county communications officer Chuck Westerheide.
But the tribes say it undercuts their authority.
Rincon Chairman Bo Mazzetti, chairman of the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, said the tribe is willing to agree to a limited waiver of sovereign immunity, but that the county is asking for too much from the tribe by asking for unlimited liability.
"(Tribes are) not a political subdivision of the state of California. We're independent, sovereign governments within the state of California," he said.
If the tribe were to agree to such a clause, he said, it could endanger the tribe's assets and business enterprises, which are tribal government's sole source of income.
"It's ridiculous — tribes cannot be monetarily compared to San Diego County, and the one thing tribes have that the county does not, is sovereignty," Mazzetti said. "Why should we bow and give that away when we are not similarly situated, financially?"
Westerheide said that neither the Sycuan Fire Department nor the Pala Fire Department and their corresponding tribes have responded to the county.
A spokesperson for Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation said in an email that the tribe was aware of the change, but has not yet discussed signing a new agreement.
Pala Band of Mission Indians Chairman Robert H. Smith said that his tribe and their legal counsel are reviewing the new contract, which he said came without any warning.
"They could have reached out earlier to the tribes to give us a heads up and let us have time to work on it, versus trying to make us sign our name under pressure, which isn't going to happen," he said.
Smith said he doesn't believe the tribe will be signing a contract with the county because "it waives too much of our tribal sovereignty to the county," though the tribe would consider signing a contract with a more limited waiver. He said he would like to work directly with the Board of Supervisors to share the tribe's perspective.
Rincon Fire Chief Chip Duncan has worked for Southern California fire departments for 37 years; his father was also a firefighter. He said he doesn't understand why the county wants such a strict agreement with the tribe.
"I grew up in the fire service, and one of the things that the fire service prides itself on is that we don't recognize borders," he said. "If there's an emergency, we go to where the emergency is."
In 2022, more than 51 percent of the 1,059 calls for service the Rincon Reservation Fire Department responded to were incidents off the reservation, according to the North County Dispatch Joint Powers Agency.
Agreements between the county and local tribes
In San Diego County, there are 10 tribal fire departments, five of which the county reports have fire mutual aid agreements with the county — Barona, Viejas, La Jolla, Sycuan and Santa Ysabel. Four tribes — Pala, Pauma, Rincon and San Pasqual — have a fire mutual aid agreement through the North County Fire Protection District, a separate district from the county's that services Fallbrook, Bonsall, and Rainbow.
The county also has an agreement with the Pechanga Band of Indians, a tribe based in Temecula that has some land in San Diego County.
The county reports that in addition to fire service, there are five tribes that also have ambulance service — Pala, Rincon, Barona, Sycuan and Viejas.
Prior to Sept. 30, ambulance service to unincorporated San Diego — or the eastern two-thirds of the county and a smaller section north of Camp Pendleton — was provided by Mercy Medical Transportation, a company that was contracted by the county in 1979.
On Sept. 12, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to approve a plan deploying a total of 22 ambulances staffed by Cal Fire and American Medical Response to the area, an increase from the 16 ambulances under the previous system. That meeting did not address the contracts the tribal fire departments had with Mercy Medical Transportation.
After taking over ambulance service in the area, Westerheide said the county reached out to other tribal and non-tribal ambulance providers to establish mutual aid agreements. He said that included a visit to Rincon to meet with its fire chief in July to offer either a mutual aid agreement or to fully integrate the tribal ambulance into the County Fire Ground Ambulance Service Area.
Westerheide said that since it took over ambulance service to unincorporated San Diego, the county has contacted all five tribes with ambulance service to negotiate new agreements, but so far the county has only signed new agreements with Barona and Viejas. The county has also negotiated new fire service agreements with Viejas and Barona, while La Jolla, Sycuan and Santa Ysabel continue to operate under previously signed agreements.
On Oct. 17, the county signed an agreement with the Barona Band of Mission Indians and the Barona Fire Department for ambulance aid that includes what is listed on the contract as a limited waiver of sovereign immunity.
On Nov. 16, Westerheide said that the county was still in negotiations with Rincon, adding that "We have made several adjustments to satisfy the tribe's concerns. We look forward to an agreement that enhances the level of service to the reservation and the surrounding area."
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.