Friday, April 13, 2007

Fire merger no cure-all

To the mayors and city councils of Bellevue and Hailey:

Once again, the idea of consolidating fire department services has surfaced. Or maybe it has always been simmering and has just moved to the front burner. Either way, I have some thoughts I would like to share.

The first thing that needs to be stated is that bigger is not necessarily better. Entities get big for a variety of reasons. For growth to be successful it needs to be driven by the customers or clients. Not only does there have to be a clear and consistent demand for growth, but all other options to satisfy that increase in demand need to be considered. So ask yourselves, are you getting calls monthly or weekly complaining about the existing fire departments? Complaints whose only solution would be a merger? I am going to guess not. My experience with the local fire protection services is that they do an excellent job.

So what (or who) is pushing for consolidation? Do you find that the business people in your cities are unhappy with the fire services? With the expenses? How about the residents? Are they unhappy with the level of service?

For me, it really is about the details. Is it a money saving idea? Where exactly are you going to save money? Are you going to have fewer volunteers to train? Fewer fire engines? Does each fire department have so much excess capacity that you could sell equipment? And if you do sell equipment from one service or the other, how is that an improvement? If this consolidation results in crews responding to Bellevue from Hailey, is that an improvement for the people in Bellevue?

So what is not being said in this discussion, is for a service to be successful it absolutely needs feedback from its customers. Any business or service will not be successful (at least not for very long) if it operates isolated from its customers. We all have had the experience of dealing with a phone company, a computer trouble-shooting service or a credit card company. Where you wade through the digital operator, followed by a 15- to 20-minute wait on the phone, and then trying to communicate with some one from half way around the world. I am sure I am not the only one who would love to talk to the boss of that company and tell him or her how poor the service is. So how is that experience related to a fire department consolidation?

As a business owner in Hailey, I want to be able to address my elected officials about any complaint or praise concerning all city departments. And I want the head of that department to be in the direct food chain of that elected official. It really is as clear and simple as that. I don't want to deal with some one I do not have the chance to vote for or against. Someone from another city whom I have no influence over. Or worst, some one appointed, who is completely outside of electoral influence.

We have seen in the recent past, both in this valley and the Magic Valley, consolidations of services that resulted in exactly this problem. For example, in the early 1990s the Wood River Rural Fire Department and the Blaine County Ambulance consolidated. One of the most telling events of that merger was the exodus of something like 40 percent of the covered land in WRRFD to the Carey district. I suspect that the reason many landowners voted with their feet was because their concerns were not being met. Their ability to provide feedback and have that feedback be heard and respected was "managed" out of the equation. All in an effort to "save" money.

So, if you decide to merge fire services, look closely for the exact line item in the budget where money will be saved. And look closely at the long-term abilities of the merged services to meet the needs of the different constituents through an appropriate feedback loop. Finally, look at who is championing this idea. Is it your constituents or is it the same old players that have been pushing this idea for 20 years?

Bill Amaya


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