Some balk at trends in resource sharing and consolidation of services between fire departments as being untrue to the mission and tradition of the industry, but I don't see it. What could reflect our tradition more than developing resourceful ways to get the job done safely and effectively and helping share an increasingly heavy load with brothers and sisters?
Many fire departments are turning to a variety of joint ventures to provide that acceptable level of service their communities demand while staying true to their core mission without an increase in revenue. A wide variety of approaches are being implemented:
- Informal sharing of personnel or equipment between departments to help with a short-term project or problem. Sharing of reserve apparatus is becoming very popular between communities.
- Combining specialized services or equipment, such as a hazardous-materials response vehicle, heavy-rescue vehicle, ladder truck or tower, apparatus maintenance services or information services (GIS and IT). Communities are combining their technical-rescue teams (personnel, equipment and apparatus) to help ensure an adequate response to an incident.
- Creating a process for hiring or contracting one another's specialized staff for special projects. For example, our district contracts out one of our administrative assistants one day a week to a smaller district that can't afford a full-time administrative staff person. In turn, we pay a neighboring community to handle our fire-safety school program since we have only one school and it isn't cost-effective to have our own program.
When emergency needs exceed the limits of any one agency, it's common for that agency to reach out for assistance using mutual-aid agreements. We're now seeing more agencies go even further, committing to some form of functional or legal consolidation.
A frequent roadblock is misunderstanding the options that consolidation offers:
- In a functional consolidation, separate fire departments are retained and duties normally performed separately are assigned as a combined new organization. An example would be a joint training center or joint fire-prevention bureau.
- In a partial consolidation, separate fire departments are retained and a special agreement is formulated to handle specific challenges. An example would be shared staffing of a fire station.
- In an operational consolidation, separate fire departments are combined or merge into one department through a legal process.
We all work in an environment where change is the new constant, and the fire service isn't exempt. While the economy is showing signs of improvement—with the Dow Jones reaching a record high and the housing market starting a slow trend upward—we're only one small fiscal cliff away from another fall.
For fire chiefs to be successful today, we need to embrace change, have open and honest dialogue with our stakeholders about service expectations and the financial limitations and accept new technologies and innovations. Fire-department consolidation and cooperation allow departments to evolve by building new models on traditional concepts and ensuring quality of service and responder safety is maintained.