To Merge or Not to Merge: That is the Question

Do you have any idea when it will be time to consider a merger between fire departments in order to provide better fire protection for your community? Let me suggest that the first step comes when you look around and finally notice the true state of affairs in your fire department. Where are the people and where are the fire trucks? I noted this phenomenon at a recent multiple-alarm fire.
 
Compared to the crowds we encountered at a major fire, there were really a lot fewer people than there once might have been. But how will you really know when it is your turn?  Let me suggest that some form of a learning curve is involved here. We need to study the new reality in our communities and come up with ways to keep the fire trucks rolling with enough people to get the job done properly and safely. I am speaking of population growth (or loss). I am referring to new construction (or the lack thereof). 
 
Let me now suggest to you that with a bit of luck, each of us gets to learn something new every day. Sometimes a couple of new facts scamper up to us and we are able to absorb them in a calm and non-threatening manner. However, there are those situations where the new knowledge comes crashing down on your head like a building collapsing after being ravaged by fire.
 
The other day, I had one of those moments when a sneaky little bit of knowledge came into my life at the local food store where I have shopped for nearly 40 years now. I was chatting with a long-time buddy from the Freehold Fire Department. He and I spent a great deal of time discussing a number of pressing issues facing their 138-year-old volunteer fire department. I will not bother you with all of the details, but I can assure you that they are experiencing some changes that are truly life altering.
 
As we were parting, my friend said to me that he too had recently learned something new. When I asked him to share it with me it came down to a very simple, but quite logical statement. He told me that, "…there are many people who tell you that they are all in favor of progress, as long as it does not involve change." What a telling bit of advice that is. People are all for ideas, as long as they are not bothered by having to change their way of doing business.
 
Let me assure you that there are many topics within the fire service that are strictly lightning rod issues. In each case you will hear people tell you that they are all in favor of the progress which new equipment, methods, and procedures will bring. Then when the changes necessary to achieve this progress are outlined, by golly, they attack them like there is no tomorrow. So it is with the idea of merging fire departments.
 
Let me assure you that you can always count on me not to shy away from issues that have that sort of effect. Life is always throwing a new set of challenges to us poor fire service types. You cannot always continue doing things like your ancestors did when they joined your fire department back in the 1940's and 1950's. Times change and society evolves. These things do not always happen for the better.
 
There is an issue out there in the world right now which is critical to the future success of our fire service. It involves the concept of merging fire departments and their operations. Perhaps my words to you in this commentary will be popular and maybe they will incite anger amongst many of you. Unfortunately, someone has to step up to the plate and say what needs to be said. 
 
My record on combining, merging, and sharing services goes back quite a number of years. Many years ago my firm provided advice to a number of communities around the State of New Jersey. I believe that a number of such tidbits of advice were offered in the mid to late 1990's. Basically I was recommending the creation of what I called "Regional Fire Authorities."
 
In these situations a number of contiguous communities were providing fire protection services to their communities which failed to come up to the recommendations of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Insurance Services Office (ISO). Usually the problems revolved around matters of staffing. Let me suggest that it is not the bright red fire trucks which get job done. There are many parts to the whole when it comes to providing fire protection for your community.
 
There was another time when I was asked by my boss in Newark to create a draft report on how to merge the fire departments in the eastern part of Essex County. Essentially this task involved research into the career fire departments which were (and remain) in close geographic proximity. My research identified a number of smaller fire departments which did not have a sufficient force to handle a major incident.
 
At the time there were fire stations around the corner from each other in adjoining communities. My report identified a number of gaps and overlaps. My report suggested a new way of doing business. As you might imagine, when the report was released, there was a hue and cry to denounce this effort. You would have thought that I struck someone's mother while she was baking an America Flag-shaped apple pie. 
 
The firefighter unions involved personally attacked me for selling out. The accused me of having no idea how to deliver fire protection services in an urban setting. These people failed to take the time to note that the methods I was using in my study were the same methods which I had taught for many years at the National Fire Academy, and that these methods were at the heart of my consulting practice. I simply believe that they did not want to allow any changes to their individual, little empires.
 
My reply to them was quite simple. I was given an assignment by my boss and I did it to the best of my ability. I also was forced to endure a direct attack from the union in a front page story in their state-wide newsletter. One of the union locals even went so far as to contact Firehouse magazine and demand that I be fired. Unfortunately for that union local, they failed to get permission from the state association to make this attack. The former President of our union local in Newark was the State President by then and he read them the riot act.
 
The point of this part of the story is simple. There is a strong downside to being ahead of one's time. At this time there are regional groups at work in New Jersey which mirror the suggestions I made nearly two decades ago. They do not call them regional fire authorities, but they do everything I suggested oh so many moons ago.
 
By the way, a number of the same fire departments which attacked me so virulently back in the day and broke my horns so badly are now looking to make a serious attempt at merging a number of different fire departments. Go figure. Hey gang, I still have my draft merger report on my computer. My firm would love to have a hand in making this happen. 
 
Let me assure you that firefighting is no less a labor intensive undertaking in 2010 than it was in 1990. People still fail to make the connection between people and service delivery levels. I have an equation which I frequently use to teach my students the true meaning of this is really quite simple indeed.  It is one which I have been using for many years now:
 
People + Equipment + Apparatus + Labor = Firefighting Capability
 
As you probably know, firefighting is an extremely labor-intensive undertaking. You know this and I know this, but the public and their political representatives are not always as astute as you and I are. The level of their ignorance can prove to be legendary. Right now we in New Jersey are in the midst of an epic battle with a state government whose only concern seems to be cutting costs. Service delivery levels and the ability to protect the public are being tossed into the dust on the side of the political highway. 
 
It really bothers me when I hear politicians uttering phrases in order to win votes which they consider to be seemingly minor. Minor to them maybe, but these things are earth-shattering and life altering events to my fellow firefighters and me. That same thought holds true for those local newspapers who serve as literary gadflies finding fault with alls sorts of things with which they are completely clueless. If I have one more of these penurious, political pups pester me, I may be forced to do something silly. 
 
Then there are the folks who continue to preach shared services as a way to save money. It sure sounds good to the people in the most highly-taxed state in the union. But it just ain't necessarily so. My research tells a far different tale. You can gain a great deal in efficiency by coming together on a regional basis. You can become much more effective if you become part of a group which responds on a boundary-neutral basis.
 
You can bring forces to bear on an emergency more quickly simply by having the nearest units respond, even if they are from the next community. However, doing this does not relieve you of the duty to provide proper staffing and equipment from your own agency. I create no end of controversy in my home state of New Jersey by insisting that there should only be 21 fire departments in the Garden State: One in each county.
 
However, I would suggest that this may or may not result in a more fiscally-prudent fire response. Go back to my formula. You will still need people, equipment, water, and labor to get the job done, and someone will still have to come up with the money to pay for these vital services. Let me suggest to you that a great many members of both local government and the general public have clue as to the true costs involved in providing help for our fire departments to show up at their front door in time of emergency. 
 
Let me offer an example of how greater efficiency may result from the creation of a regional approach to fire protection. For more than twenty years we have had an automatic aid agreement at work here in Howell Township, New Jersey. We are really great at coming together in time of emergency to pool our operational resources. Many have been the times when we able to operate as a group at a variety of emergencies. 
 
Back in the 1980's we recognized a need to come together on a regional basis. Let me not kid you here. There were a great many labor pains during the birth of this new child. However, we kept coming back to the table to work out our differences. Although it took a bit of time, we now realize that it was the right thing to do. Although we have not merged our individual organizations, I am of the opinion that we are providing a better level of service. In the final analysis, this is what really counts. 
 
Might there be organizational mergers in our future? Who can speak with any great certainty at this point? But when the time comes, it is my hope that the people involved will have the foresight to recognize the need to join together and the wisdom to agree as reasonable people on the need to for a new way of doing business. Let me recap
 
·                     Have the foresight to recognize the need
·                     Have the wisdom to come together
·                     Have the will to proceed as a united group
·                     Have the will to battle the demons of the status quo
 
Will it ever be easy? No, it will be like losing weight. It will be easy to speak about and extremely difficult to accomplish. But do not hide in the past. When you ignore problems, they do not go away. They simply get worse. Be ready to act and when the time comes, be reasonable enough to join in. 

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