Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Hello, 911: Fire departments need rescue

South valley elected officials in Hailey, Bellevue and the Wood River Fire District should lower their hackles, start communicating and get to the table to negotiate consolidation—or better contractual binding—of all three fire departments.

A three-part investigative series by this newspaper found that these fire operations all overlap and that efficiencies may be found through consolidation.

All have mutual aid agreements in which the cities' and Wood River Fire and Rescue crews respond to fires as needed. Yet, more is needed.

As Hailey and Bellevue grow, their fire departments will need to grow with them. Both will need more professional firefighters and volunteers.

That's where Wood River Fire and Rescue comes in. The well-funded and well-trained department is larger and better equipped than either city department.

Bellevue's sole fire employee is its part-time chief. It leases a small fire station.

Hailey employs 4 full-time fire professionals with minimum certifications for emergency medical care.

Wood River employs 12 full-time firefighters who are highly trained in emergency medical care. It's clearly the big dog in the pack.

Parochial politics, petty jealousies, and inertia now separate the departments.

Hailey got a wakeup call last November when thrifty voters turned down a $2.3 million bond for a new Woodside fire station. The outcome reflected concern that Wood River and Hailey have side-by-side fire stations. Voters questioned why the city would need to build housing for firefighters it did not yet employ.

Hailey's official response to the wakeup call has been to sleep through it.

Instead of working with Wood River, it decided to negotiate consolidation with Bellevue alone.

Hailey's Mayor Susan McBryant said the city is doing what's best for the city.

It's hard to see why that's best given the strengths that Wood River offers.

Fire departments are famous for strong fraternal bonds among firefighters. Such bonds are good when courageous people face a life-threatening fire. Yet the same bonds often make it difficult for fire departments to change.

This is where elected public officials can and must intervene.

What's good for fire departments is what's good for residents: well-trained professionals, good equipment, quick response times, the lowest cost, and the best insurance ratings possible.

Hailey, Bellevue and Wood River district officials should put aside the artificial boundaries that separate them to enact a fire-protection plan that best protects homes and businesses, not one that protects only the insularity of the fire station.

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