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Functional consolidation of core services is an option that may be considered before a full merger or contracting for service. Many fire departments have turned to a variety of joint ventures to provide the level of service their communities expect, benefiting from cost savings of less duplication of services while improving efficiencies. Examples of functional consolidations include shared investigative and inspection personnel and partnering on regional training facilities and programs, as well as the sharing of instructors, common information technology services and joint use of personnel and programs for the delivery of community education. The idea is to be creative in accomplishing your primary mission.
Consider joint ventures
These forms of sharing of individuals, staff, equipment, facilities and programs, common across jurisdictional or political boundaries, is finding acceptance within the fire service.
Contracting and consolidating also bring up issues of control. When a community contracts for services or consolidates with another jurisdiction a certain amount of control over the quality of the service is lost. Another governing board may now make decisions impacting your community’s level of service. Your elected officials may hold one or more seats on a regional governing district’s board, but they are not likely to hold the majority of voting positions. Thus, decisions may be made that may not represent the best interest if your residents or businesses.
It is also important to acknowledge that once the decision is made to contract or consolidate fire protection there can be a financial consequence as much as a benefit. The initial start-up costs of forming a consolidated service district needs to be taken into consideration. There may be savings, eventually, but not likely initially. Also, once a level of service is stopped, there is a cost of restarting the service if contracting or consolidating does not work out as planned.
In some communities there are few alternatives to having their own fire department. In other communities, there may be many alternatives. The opportunity for a fire department is to provide the best, most cost-effective service the elected officials desire (or will support), balanced to what the community can afford (and will support). Affordability is the driving force behind many of the questions now being asked about all government services and fire departments, as noble as the calling may be, they are not exempt from these tough questions. n