To Merge or Not to Merge: That is the Question - Part 1

Change has been the watchword for many fire department operations during the first decade of the 21st Century. A number of our accepted practices within the fire service have been revised and the manner in which services are delivered has witnessed a...

Gleibs, et. al. (2008) note that, "...merging is a strategy designed to increase competitiveness, reduce costs, create synergy, and meet changing financial and demographic challenges" (p. 1095). In those situations where one company takes over another and clearly establishes itself as the new owner, the purchase is called an acquisition. From a legal point of view, the target company ceases to exist, the buyer "swallows" the business and the buyer's stock continues to be traded. Let me suggest that this sort of organizational combination is not what we are looking for in the fire service environment. This has all of the characteristics of a bully stealing your lunch money. The usual example is of a big and powerful organization swallowing a smaller and weaker group. This is somewhat akin to a python swallowing another animal whole. It is not pretty and it has a habit of creating a lot of really ill will.

A consolidation is the generic term for the combination of two or more things (jobs, entities, etc.). You can consolidate debt for a new loan. You can consolidate operations from a wide variety of locations into a single new facility. You can consolidate a number of organizations in order to create a new organization. This concept has been around for a long time. In fact the generic terms merger and consolidation can actually be tied together by definition within a thesaurus. These words stand for what is called the combination of things.

In the purest sense of the term, a merger happens when two or more organizations agree to go forward as a single new organization rather than remain separately owned and operated. In some cases there is a recognition that it is in the best interests of all parties to come together in a new and stronger version of the existing organizations. In the fire department arena, a merger occurs when two (or more) fire departments come together in a new form or operational arrangement. Coincidently, this is what a consolidation is designed to achieve. Ling (2001) argues that, "...the consolidation of fire departments in almost any community would mean cost savings for the taxpayers" (p. 4). However, what are the driving forces behind the merger/consolidation effort in the fire service operational area? Research findings reveal the following:

  1. Lack of adequate staffing
  2. Societal changes
  3. Increasing call volume increases service delivery need
  4. Equipment shortages
  5. Apparatus duplication
  6. Cost reduction
  7. Improved efficiency
  8. Public dissatisfaction

In the state of Pennsylvania, the number of volunteer firefighters has plummeted over the past 40 years. Reeger (2008) indicated that, " … (T)he number of volunteer firefighters in the state is in sharp decline, from 300,000 in 1976 to 72,000 in 2005, according to the Governor's Center for Local Government Services" (Pittsburgh Tribune Fire departments are simply unable to field a sufficient number of firefighting personnel to constitute a viable public safety workforce. Reeger (2008) noted that there are a number of communities which have even entertained the notion of disbanding their fully-paid, career fire departments. David Eckman, President of the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighter's Association went on record as suggesting that, " … it is high time in Pennsylvania that we really start taking a look at providing this vital public service on a much larger scale than just every little town, every city having their own department" (Reeger, 2008, Pittsburgh Tribune It is important to note that the combination of decreasing volunteerism and increasing call volume is one critical element of the service-delivery problem package.

In those communities where fire protection is provided by a fully-paid, career fire department, the economic issues come quickly to the front as problems for local government. In the state of New Jersey, the Jersey City Fire Department has seen nearly 150 fire personnel retire since December 2009. When you combine the drop in personnel, with a freeze on hiring, you see the potential for a number of operational problems. Fire companies are being closed on a rotational basis and as a result, response times are increasing. In September of 2010, the Newark Fire Department was threatened with a total of approximately 97 layoffs and demotions in the 2010 time frame. The Trenton Fire Department is facing a loss of approximately 78 members of a much smaller force. The same is being seen in a number of states in our nation. It is in situations like this where the concept of mergers and consolidations begins to gain traction.