Fire Service Consolidations: Is It Inevitable?

by Dr. Tim McGrath & Dr. Victoria McGrath

The very word consolidation still has a tendency to raise a level of anxiety in so many. Some view it as the greatest money saver of all times or the best method to improve services; others the loss of their power or job. Ironically, it could be none or all of the above. Simply, consolidation equals change and change is most difficult for many individuals and professions - especially those with strong traditions.

The Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) seems to be a good example of a type of consolidation - we just don't call MABAS a consolidation. In parts of the state of Wisconsin MABAS has been around for years and is working extremely well. In other parts of the state, it remains a concept openly opposed by some. But MABAS has proven it works, and it is expanding throughout the nation; notably fire departments have not disappeared because of it.

There is no doubt that the fire service works better together, at an emergency, then any other emergency agency. Working together off the emergency scene is what non-fire folks (i.e. elected and governing officials) understand and for the most part embrace. In fact the principle is so simple they ask, "Why can't we share resources when there are no emergencies". Many Fire Chief's attempt to argue you can't - it won't work - we are unique - our department is better, somehow mutual/automatic aid is different. However, one of the largest consolidations in the United States is in your state and it works quite well. The only real issues remaining, are who will lead the consolidation - the fire service or those outside the fire service, and when?

Let's put the term consolidation into context. Consolidations are like relationships. I would like to date that person - to - I want to marry that person; there is a lot in between. The principles of working together and sharing resources at the emergency scene can apply to the non-emergency arena as well. Consolidations:

  • Work - there are examples in your state
  • Save money - the greatest savings is in future cost avoidance
  • Improve services - if we take the best of two organizations and combine them, we should, and most often do, get a better outcome
  • Improve personnel safety at the emergency scene - training together can create a safer working enivornment at the emergency scene
  • Are increasing as we speak - not only in the fire service but in many different government services

How Do You Begin
Governing officials and Fire Chief must meet and define their expectations. Most likely governing officials will focus on money; whereas Fire Chiefs will focus on service. It is at this point where most consolidations fail. Why? Because unless both groups focus on outcomes and agree on an acceptable outcome, each will continue to walk down a separate path rather than a single path that ultimately reaches the objective.

The next step or steps will depend on what type of consolidation best accomplishes the objective: The most common types of consolidation include:

  • Administrative - departments remain legally separate but consolidate administrative/staff functions - i.e. a single Fire Chief
  • Functional - departments remain legally separate but perform special functions as if a single consolidated department - i.e. apparatus maintenance, training officer, etc.
  • Operational - departments remain legally separate but join together both administrative and operation functions, delivering services as if they were one with boundaries becoming invisible.
  • Full - two departments legally become a single legal agency with taxing authority with boundaries becoming invisible. Currently this is not legally allowed in Wisconsin unlike many states.
  • Merge - one department absorbs the other, resulting in a single entity.

In an administrative consolidation, the focus needs to be the leadership and support resources. Can your department consolidate administrative functions such as secretarial, IT, human resource, payroll, bookkeeping, ambulance billing, purchasing, etc. Could a single Fire Chief administer two departments?

In the functional, operational, and full consolidation it is advantageous to begin, after a outcome is clearly defined, by inventorying the assets of each department and identify areas of unneeded duplication. Most departments already have mutual/automatic aid agreements with their neighbors. Functional consolidation just expands the concept of mutual/automatic aid to an everyday concept. For example, instead of each department purchasing an aerial device could they jointly purchase and utilize this apparatus in both communities when needed. Could one department provide a reserve engine for several communities if another department would provide a reserve tender or squad? Instead of department purchasing a squad and tender, could one community purchase the squad the other the tender and the apparatus goes where it is needed. Could several departments share a training officer; after all isn't training a safety issue? These types of consolidation will eliminate unnecessary and expensive duplication of resources.

Believing you must have all the resources needed within your personal arsenal leads to the situation actually encountered in your state. Three small fire departments and one rescue squad considered consolidation. Between the four agencies they had more "jaws of life" equipment than the City of Milwaukee; needless to say call volumes and service demands were not similar.

Today in Wisconsin full consolidations (by definition) are not allowed. However, operational consolidations offer the same benefits with the exception of an independent taxing authority (i.e. district). In both of these types of consolidations the areas served are done so by a single department under a single Fire Chief. To the citizen it is simply a department that serves more than one community.

A merge is exactly what it implies. One department simply absorbs the other and provides protection to both areas. Although at the unset a merge might sound like a difficult way to combine resources; it is in fact the quickest, most practical, and often the least expensive method.

What Will Happen If We Do This?
There will always be fires to fight, victims to treat, and a host of other activities conducted by today's progressive fire service. Scarce resources (people and money) can be combined to provide the personnel, apparatus, and equipment needed to safely function at the emergency scene. Initially, there will be those that feel they will lose power/control; but the issue isn't about power and/or control it should be about providing the highest level of service within the fiscal capabilities of the communities.

The title of this article asked if consolidations were inevitable? The author has spent a great portion of his life researching, reading, writing about, creating, and/or implementing consolidations and therefore, answers that question as 'yes'. Perhaps a better question more applicable to today's enivornment would be: who will lead the consolidation - the fire service or someone from outside the fire service? That answer Chief, is most often within your control. Opportunities most often come disguised a problem - Chiefs that can recognize them find their department benefiting - those that can't, most often find much to complain about.