Who knew that a discussion about fire department consolidation could be akin to a couple’s relationship?
Inter-Canyon, Indian Hills, Elk Creek and North Fork fire departments along the U.S. 285 Corridor are still in the dating stage as they consider solving mutual problems to provide even better service to the communities they serve. The four fire chiefs are not sure if they will get engaged, so to speak, or even married, but they are exploring their options.
They hope a study by a consultant will be their “matchmaker,” assessing each department’s strengths and weaknesses, and providing recommendations on whether consolidation is a good idea. They expect a report this summer.
They don’t believe a bad breakup is in the works because as fire chiefs, they have the personalities to work collaboratively.
The impetus for the discussion is the national trend of dwindling volunteers who want to train to be firefighters.
“We are all experiencing that,” Inter-Canyon Fire Chief Skip Shirlaw said. “There was a time when we were at capacity and couldn’t take any more volunteers, and they all (lived) within the district. Now the numbers are dwindling each year, and finding (people who live) in-district is difficult.”
As volunteerism is declining, calls are increasing. The fire districts, which have roots as volunteer departments, can’t afford all-paid firefighting staffs. While the chiefs agree they are not in a crisis with staffing, they need to address the issue sooner rather than later.
“We are somewhat insulated from what our best path is,” Shirlaw said. “Hiring a neutral party to conduct a study will give us a lot of information and tell us (whether) it makes sense.”
The departments have many issues to consider.
“Change is hard,” Shirlaw said. “That will be one of the bigger aspects as we move forward. While we do the same thing, none of us does the same thing in exactly the same way. There are different philosophies in each department. The nice thing is that people are in favor of the directions we are going.”
The chiefs have been discussing working together informally for the last three to four years, but the discussions have become more formal in the last 18 months. The first step, they said, was deciding whether some level of consolidation was reasonable.
“We’re looking at the needs of the community,” Indian Hills Fire Chief Mark Forgy said. “Is there a more efficient way, a more cost-effective way to do this and provide better service? Are we doing everything we can to serve our community? We want to look at options, and all of the options are on the table. Until all of the options are on the table, there is no way to determine how to serve the public the best.”
The four fire departments have always provided mutual aid to each other on large calls, but now they are collaborating in new ways. They purchase equipment together, which helps save each fire district money, and they are beginning to use the same apparatus, so firefighters become familiar with all of the trucks, ambulances and more.
They have hired a regional training chief to arrange joint training exercises and fire academies, which train new firefighters.
The fire chiefs hope the consultant’s study will give them ideas on ways to collaborate further as they learn about what they do well and what they can do better.
“The consultant’s report will air our dirty laundry,” Forgy said.
Elk Creek Fire Chief Jacob Ware added: “I think the study will help us figure out where we are going. (It) will also show us that we don’t meet some of the standards for staffing and call response (because of the lack of personnel).”
The chiefs say they will consider all of the consultant’s recommendations. It could be a couple of the departments should consolidate or all should consolidate, or the recommendation could be that consolidation is not feasible. Either way, they are pledging collaboration because it makes sense and because all of the departments were built on the philosophy of neighbor helping neighbor.
The fire chiefs don’t know what their fire departments will look like in the future, and they are in no hurry to make big changes. They hope the consultant’s study provides guidance on what the departments will look like down the road.
“We realized we can improve service, and we can improve our product by working together more,” Shirlaw said. “We’re not thinking next year but where we will be in five, 10, 15, 20 years. We are laying the foundation for a solid future.”
One option on the road to consolidation could be creating a fire authority.
“We could start as a fire authority where operationally we are together, but the fire board might function independently,” North Fork Fire Chief Curt Rogers said.
Clear Creek County, for example, has had a fire authority since 1999 that combined four municipal fire departments. The firefighters are part of one department, while the governing board is comprised of representatives of the four municipalities.
The chiefs said residents in the communities they serve are expecting faster response times and responses to a wider variety of calls, and not everyone understands that the fire departments are staffed primarily by volunteers.
The chiefs are excited about their collaborations and are looking forward to what their departments will look like in the future.
“You’re looking at four people who are trying to do the best for their districts,” Shirlaw said. “We live here, and this is important to us. We’re doing what is best for the people we serve.”