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Archived Story

Fire departments explore cooperation

Published 6:31pm Sunday, August 29, 2010

By JOHN EBY

Dowagiac Daily News

Five municipalities, the City of Dowagiac and Wayne, Keeler, Silver Creek and Pokagon townships, and eight fire departments, Dowagiac, Pokagon, Sister Lakes, Hartford, Indian Lake, Wayne Township, Keeler and Edwardsburg/Ontwa Township, attended the workshop Saturday at Southwestern Michigan College Mathews Conference Center given by Phil Kouwe of Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI, www.esci.us).

Kouwe, of North Carolina, talked about “Making the Pieces Fit” for cooperative efforts for emergency services providers.

“When you look at an implementation, whether it be automatic aid, closest unit response, functional consolidation — maybe joint training or maintenance — operational consolidation or merger, you’ve got policy action. Either the elected officials in a municipality or the key executives in a non-profit. Typically, they agree to move forward in formal talks, in formal negotiations for whatever. Then it goes into strategic planning, looking at a plan of implementation and then once the implementation has occurred, having a plan to come back and do an evaluation review to really see if it worked. Because if it didn’t, you may have to make some adjustments or even look at possibly undoing it. Don’t forget to get advice from people who have been through the same thing.”

In the “aftermath,” Kouwe counseled, “Make sure you don’t have a loss of service to the public to solve issues surrounding” creating cooperative services. “It takes a lot of work to go through something like this and to blend the cultures of multiple organizations. One of the most common questions is are there failures? Yes, but not often. Usually, it’s a failure based on five big issues — turf, power, politics, control or money.

“Chances of success are very good if you do a study, if you get a joint vision for what you’re trying to accomplish and everyone buys in that the vision makes sense. If you want to move forward, look at forming a joint interagency committee and start having monthly meetings and putting stuff on the chalkboard. Before long, that chalkboard will start to fill up. That’s the first step, then you analyze and discuss how that would occur, how it could work, what would be involved, what the form of governance would be. Even if it’s just a functional consolidation, how are you going to oversee that joint training program or that joint maintenance program? With a committee? Some kind of board?”

Kouwe has been with ESCI since 2000. He has done more than 100 studies in 26 states and brings 22 years fire service experience in Indianapolis, Cleveland and Charlotte.

ESCI is the consulting arm of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He visited Dowagiac on his way back from presenting at the IAFC’s big conference in Chicago.

There is lots of interest nationally in his workshop driven by the economy, but Kouwe said cooperative service delivery is something departments should be looking at periodically anyway to answer the “$1 million question” of “what is the in the best interest of the people we serve?”

Humans tend to resist change and respond to it by framing questions in terms of how does this affect me personally? Will I have to move? Will my work conditions change? Will my pay and benefits change?

Kouwe compared cooperative services to a “toolbox with a couple of drawers.”

What form it takes can be mutual aid, automatic aid, closest unit response, or CUR, functional consolidation, operational consolidation and a legal merger.

Kouwe emphasized that fire boundaries develop by evolution — not design.

“Fire stations are not always ideally located,” so a CUR, or “boundary drop,” does not require a formal merger, just a series of contracts or agreements.

He showed a photo of two fire departments in Montana that happened to be situated 236 feet apart.

He recalled two in Pennsylvania so close that rival firefighters tossed a Frisbee back and forth.

Consolidation is when two or more agencies operate as one, but remain separate.

If area firefighters came away with anything from the meeting it is that they operate more cooperatively already than they imagined, such as a central dispatch center operated by the sheriff’s office — an example of functional consolidation.

So, with communication consolidated, Kouwe said when fire officials next meet at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 15, at Wayne Township Hall, they might pick another topic to discuss, such as centralized apparatus repairs with a shared mechanic, such as in the suburban “doughnuts” of Detroit, Cleveland and Indianapolis.

A regional fire prevention division to conduct training is another in “endless possibilities.”

In operational consolidation, departments pool resources, from staff to equipment and respond like one department, but stop short of a formal legal merger.

He likened this arrangement to “living together without marriage” or “cohabitation.”

Where he lives, a career department and a volunteer department cohabit successfully.

That can also be the down side of the arrangement, however, because splitting up is easy to do at the first sign of “speed bumps.” If the commitment to cooperative services is tenuous, departments can be tempted to bail out “when it gets a little rough.”

In an actual merger, previous entities are dissolved and replaced with something new, such as California’s huge Orange County Fire Authority which serves millions of residents in 23 municipalities. Technically an operational consolidation, entities opt in and out of that authority.

There are any number of answers to the question of how to structure cooperative fire services, from an IGA,  or intergovernmental agreement — a contract, essentially — to a JPA, or Joint Powers of Authority.

Michigan law gives lots of latitude and flexibility in how mandated services are provided.

With a JPA, two governments decide to create a third entity and transfer a role in providing service, such as sewer, water or park authorities.

In that arrangement, a five-member board might hire a fire chief, employ firefighters and buy equipment.

There are dependent districts and independent districts when it comes to collecting tax revenue.

In the former, someone else levies the taxes. In the latter, of which New Jersey is an example, county commissioners set the tax rate in a classic check and balance.

Why consolidate or merge? There is the belief less government is better, which is “not always true,” Kouwe said, but in the interest of due diligence fire officials should always be willing to look.

There can be beneficial economies of scale, such as savings on insurance.

Such a move could shift ISO ratings, but not always, because they depend 40 percent on water supply and 10 percent from communication — only half on fire service. Partners could see some costs reduced and increased service levels and gains from the forced program examination because firefighters tend to be competitive.

As a rule of thumb on mergers, Kouwe said, whatever you think cost savings and avoidance will be, “cut that in half,” then double the expectation of how long it will take.

Operations will remain about the same size, but support will get bigger while administration should get smaller.

Specialty teams can be strengthened and station locations will be based on real, rather than artificial, boundaries.

Duplication is reduced in stations, apparatus, personnel, equipment, utility costs, maintenance and insurance.

Kouwe, who is studying a seven-department merger in the Cleveland area (they have 11 aerial trucks between them and can justify “at best, maybe five”), said there is a big federal push for “communication interoptability” after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

In Chicago, where “you can’t swing a dead otter without hitting a fire station,” Kouwe said, three departments with 11 stations conducted a case study for a cooperative deployment.

With two firefighters and three pieces of apparatus, it took two engines to respond to a car fire.

Doing away with artificial boundaries enabled the job to be done with seven stations and the added benefit of deeper service from pooled resources and standardization of services across the region.

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