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Many factors cited in communities' inability to consolidate fire coverage

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Catherine W. Idzerda
February 18, 2013

— Three fire departments in southern Dane County are considering combining to improve response times and save money.

Don't look for that to happen in Rock or Walworth counties.

Beloit City Manager Larry Arft put it bluntly: "It won't ever happen."

Even in the southern part of Rock County, where the city of Beloit and town of Beloit have five stations within 12 square miles, consolidation has been ruled out more than once.

Territorialism, money and mutual aid agreements are the most commonly cited reasons.

Many residents in rural towns and villages are attached to their departments and the sense of identity and control they provide. That often translates into fierce territorialism that trumps discussion of improved response times.

In areas where fire departments are staffed by volunteers or paid-on-call firefighters, rural residents fear consolidation would result in higher costs.

Despite obstacles, Fitchburg, Verona and the town of Madison are considering consolidating fire service. Elected officials started the discussion, and fire chiefs in each department quickly picked it up.

"What we said as chiefs is, ‘It all has to start with us,'" Verona Fire Chief Joe Giver said.

The three chiefs—Giver, Fitchburg Fire Chief Randall Pickering and town of Madison Chief David Bloom—got together and agreed to set their positions aside for the good of the public, Giver said.

In 2012, the UW-Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs studied consolidation of the three departments and found that while it initially would increase costs, the improved service delivery and response times would result in "net social benefits."

All paid or paid-on-call staff would keep their jobs, as would the volunteers.

Future costs to run the combined department would decrease, according to the study.

One immediate benefit would be the availability of more volunteers and paid-on-call employees.

Giver said that one of their biggest problems has been finding enough people for all three stations.

Some savings might be realized, too, if the departments could share a mechanic.

"Our department alone spent $17,000 in repairs last year," Giver said.

This year, a consulting firm that helped with the consolidation of several departments near Durango, Colo., has been hired to come up with a detailed plan for the three departments to combine.

Money matters

Janesville Fire Chief Jim Jensen has studied consolidation. In 2003, he wrote a research paper about the possibility of consolidated fire and emergency response systems in Rock County. The paper was a requirement of the executive fire officer program at the National Fire Academy.

For seven municipalities north of Milwaukee, consolidation saved significant expense and improved response times, according to Jensen's research. Those savings came from economies of scale, joint purchasing agreements and a reduction in administrative staff.

Before the consolidation, the departments had 21 administrative positions. After the consolidation, there were seven.

Jensen's study showed that consolidation in Rock County would, in all cases, improve service delivery and create operational advantages. It did not show that consolidation would, in all cases, result in financial savings.

Why not?

Many fire departments are staffed by volunteers, and some have "paid-on-call" employees.

Paid-on-call means volunteers are paid a stipend each time they respond to a call.

That means the towns, villages and municipalities the department covers pay very little—or nothing at all—for salaries. They still have to help pay for equipment and station expenses, but are aided by fundraisers backed by the volunteers. Pancake breakfasts, Fourth of July beer tents and spaghetti suppers are part of the job description for volunteer firefighters.

Residents and elected officials accustomed to a low-cost fire department might not want to pay the salaries of professional firefighters.

But there are other types of service consolidations such departments can pursue.

Different approaches

Delavan Police Chief Tim O'Neill has been a volunteer firefighter since he was old enough to join his city's fire department.

His view of consolidation?

"Certainly, anytime you can reduce duplication of services, it's a win for the taxpayers and a win for the departments," O'Neill said.

The city of Delavan recently started providing police services for Darien, a village of about 1,600 people less than three miles from Delavan city limits.

The move saves money for both municipalities, and responses have been favorable, O'Neill said.

But consolidating fire departments in rural areas isn't always a money saver.

"One hundred percent of the city's fire department is volunteer," O'Neill said. "We have no full-time salaries."

It's the same in the town of Delavan.

But the city's fire station and the town's fire station are three miles apart, so it might make sense to share stations and equipment, he said.

"I think there are some really attractive ways to get around the territorial issues," O'Neill said.

"The hierarchy is so minimal," O'Neill said of the leadership issue. "That's not where the dollars would be saved."

The savings would come when one of the departments needed to buy a $1 million ladder truck or an $850,000 engine.

Sharing stations would have personnel benefits, too.

"When I joined the fire department, they pretty much gave you a helmet and coat and said, ‘Here you go,'" O'Neill said. "Now, there's more training, there's more technology and there's more of a time commitment for volunteers."

In those days, people often lived where they worked.

Not any more.

"A number of our paid-on-call people don't work within a response time," O'Neill said.

Employers, too, have cut back on staff and are less willing to support a volunteer firefighter who has to leave at any hour.

O'Neill likes the idea of "closest response by contract." Under that system, the station closest to the fire responds, no matter what fire district the emergency is in.

Delavan firefighters already receive fire locations mapped on their smartphones.

"A lot of these challenges could easily be handled by procedures," O'Neill said. "These are really operational issues that we could solve without totally upsetting the apple cart."

Help in time of need

Mutual aid agreements often are cited as a reason why change isn't necessary.

Mutual aid means fire departments share resources during "emergency events of significance." That might mean fighting a fire with personnel from several other departments, or it might mean standing by in another community's fire station.

Although the mutual aid system guarantees help between departments, it does not mean the unit closest to a fire will be dispatched, and that's a drawback, Jensen wrote.

How much difference does a few minutes make? That all depends on weather conditions, the type of material involved in the fire and a variety of other factors.

Last week, O'Neill and Delavan firefighters battled a 3:30 a.m. fire during 40 mph wind gusts.

"We're lucky the house was five blocks from the fire department," O'Neill said. "If it was across town, it would have been twice that size—or a lot bigger."

"In less than 30 seconds a small flame can get completely out of control and turn into the a major fire," according to the U.S. Fire Administration website, usfa.fema.gov.

That's bad news for places such as Rock Prairie Presbyterian Church, Beckman Mill County Park and all the homes and businesses located at the edges of their fire districts.

It's about four miles from Janesville Fire Station No. 4 to Rock Prairie, for example, but the church is served by Milton Fire Department, which is 8.8 miles away.

Beckman Mill is seven miles from a city of Beloit fire station, but it's covered by the Orfordville Fire Department, which is 11 miles away.

Attracted by autonomy

By all accounts, the most significant barrier to consolidating or combining services is the reluctance of elected officials, residents and firefighters to relinquish control.

Sammis White, a professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee, wrote a report on the northern Milwaukee fire department consolidation.

Using feedback from the people involved in the process, White listed "overcoming the desire for community autonomy" as one of the most significant hurdles to the success of the venture.

That's why Arft cited local control issues as the primary obstacle to consolidation.

"It's the same all over the country," Arft said.

That doesn't mean they can't worked together, Arft said.

Arft and elected officials from neighboring towns have discussed resources they could share while retaining the "integrity of the entities."

In other words, consolidation, in any form, is off the table.

Arft believes that "closest response by contract" is more likely than any kind of consolidation.

Not only are there turf issues, Arft said, but it would be a challenge to combine unionized firefighters working under a negotiated contract with a mix of volunteer, paid-on-call and professional firefighters from other departments.

The last time town of Turtle Fire Chief Tim Huffman was asked about consolidation with the city or neighboring towns, he said it would take away local control.

"We're very happy with the department we have," Huffman said. "We're very tight, close-knit people."



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