Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Study recommends fire department consolidation in south valley

Wood River Fire & Rescue could integrate Hailey and Bellevue fire departments

Express Staff Writer

Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman, left, and Hailey Fire Marshal Mike Baledge listen to a presentation on possible consolidation scenarios for south-county fire departments. “There were no surprises,” Chapman said following the meeting. Photo by Willy Cook

After a few months of interviews and number-crunching, a team of consultants has concluded that merging the Hailey and Bellevue fire departments into Wood River Fire & Rescue would be cost-effective and perhaps would increase the level of service.

"That's our preferred strategy," said Lane Wintermute, a senior associate with Emergency Services Consulting International.

Wintermute and Martin Goughner, the firm's director of financial services, presented findings from a $48,000 "Cooperative Efforts Feasibility Study" to south-county city officials, firefighters and ambulance drivers at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey on Monday.

The study was based on an inventory of equipment, personnel, emergency call records, response times and incident risk distributions in southern Blaine County. The study included an assessment of financial circumstances among the stakeholders.

"This is our professional advice," Goughner said. "You can take it, leave it or change it."

The study was called for by Hailey Mayor Rick Davis last year to find ways to save money and perhaps improve services. Eight entities were interviewed for the study, from the Carey Rural Fire District to the much larger Hailey Fire Department and Wood River Fire & Rescue, which serves a far-ranging district outside of the cities and assists city departments.

The study was paid for by the city of Hailey and the Wood River Fire Protection District, two groups that have been at odds in the past over fire-fighting methodologies. A key question in the study was how to improve cooperation that goes beyond the mutual-aid response protocols already in place between agencies in the south county.

City officials and fire district representatives are now charged with taking the recommendations under advisement as they move forward, but are not required to follow the recommendations.

Wintermute and Goughner also presented about 30 opportunities for fire departments to work cooperatively, even if the consolidation recommendations are not followed. They include developing shared and uniform public fire-safety programs, training manuals, strategic plans, apparatus purchases, fees for service and strategic plans.

"Fires are the same everywhere you go," Wintermute said. "Everybody should be trained to the same standards."

Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman explained the difficulty that his department has had in training and keeping firefighters, due to dropouts and other problems. During the discussion, it became apparent that Wood River Fire & Rescue has suffered from similar problems in retaining skilled firefighters.

< "This is a prime example of how these two departments could work together," Wintermute said.

The consultants recommended two functional consolidation scenarios in which Wood River Fire & Rescue would incorporate Hailey and Bellevue's fire departments. Both include using the Wood River Fire & Rescue station No. 3 south of Bellevue, the Hailey fire station at or near the site of Hailey's existing downtown station (but expanded in size) and the Greenhorn station north of Hailey, nown operated by the Ketchum Rural Fire District.

All stations would be staffed by members of Hailey, Bellevue and Wood River Fire & Rescue departments, and possibly include Ketchum Rural Fire District personnel at the Greenhorn station.

A second consolidation scenario includes the first one, but adds construction of a new fire station at McKercher Boulevard near Albertsons grocery store in northern Hailey. The fourth station would also be jointly staffed by personnel from Wood River Fire & Rescue, Hailey and Bellevue.

Neither scenario would likely result in a decrease of fire-fighting personnel positions, and may lead to hiring new positions, Goughner said.

"One agency could take over much of the administration duties," he said.

Goughner said the amount of cost savings from consolidation would depend on what level of service, including response times, the individual agencies would require. He also said, based on the study and the current economy, that agencies would soon find it impossible to meet capital expense requirements.

"We don't believe it is possible to maintain the status quo in the future," he said.

Wintermute and Goughner were instructed to develop cost projections and savings associated with the consolidation scenarios presented in time for a follow-up meeting of the stakeholders on March 7.

"The question I get asked at the end of the day is, 'How is this going to affect my taxes?'" said Hailey Councilwoman Carol Brown.

Under Idaho law, the consolidation scenarios could be passed by resolution by cities and agencies, or taken to a public vote.

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