North county fire departments looking into consolidation

American Fork is looking around to determine how best to provide fire protection for its residents.

When the fire station was built, close to 100 years ago, the city's population was 3,220. Now -- 23,000 residents later -- the station has been rebuilt and upgraded. Service is better, but it still comes from the same location, while the city has expanded around it.

"Our ability to get places in a timely fashion is no longer the case," Fire Chief Kriss Garcia said. "All of our standards are based on getting firefighters there to start. Just the logistics of the station puts us outside of that."

To overcome the problem, American Fork is looking at building a new fire station. This may be done in conjunction with the Lone Peak Fire District, which provides service to Alpine, Highland and Cedar Hills. Each of those communities has its own station.

"We are looking at hiring a fire consultant to address combining with Lone Peak," Garcia said. "There could be cost and mostly service benefits."

"This whole north part of the county is so short on resources," he said. "Maybe it is just how we grew so quickly.

"Both of us are really struggling to provide service," he said.

Lone Peak fire Chief Brad Freeman agreed.

"There will actually be two requests," he said. "One is for a possible merger between Lone Peak and American Fork. The other, which we are really studying, is a possible merger between the north end fire departments -- Saratoga Springs, Eagle Mountain, Lehi, Lone Peak, Pleasant Grove and American Fork. It started with American Fork and Lone Peak looking at it. The other departments are interested in looking at it. It would save the citizens quite a bit of money doing it."

Garcia said they are sending out a request for proposals to find a consultant to study the options. The consultant will look at the four cities; other cities may opt into the study. The study is expected to be completed by early June.

"We will see if there is a benefit and how we would go about accomplishing it," Garcia said. American Fork could build its own station, perhaps in the northeast section of the community. It could combine and provide service in conjunction with Cedar Hills, which has a station near that city's eastern boundaries. There is a lot of territory between those two stations, and an additional facility could cover the intervening structures.

Those are not only homes, but some of what Garcia called "target hazards." Those on the east side of American Fork include the Utah State Developmental Center, the Mount Timpanogos LDS Temple, American Fork Hospital and associated buildings, Dan Peterson School, the Timpanogos Special Service District and nearby refineries.

"They are all outside of our first fire district," Garcia said.

Although there would be some additional expenses, there would be some savings as well as better coverage.

Garcia explained that the Insurance Services Office rates areas based on their department's capability to respond. The lower the number, the better the rating.

"In 2008, we were evaluated," he said. "At the time we were a five. We were threatened to go to a seven."

The council allocated additional money for staffing, which helped the department keep its rating.

"If we had to go to a seven, that would have meant about $215 per year per household in increased insurance costs," Garcia said. "We have 6,000 houses, so it would translate into over $1 million over a year. Let's try to improve before that happens."

A small business in a community that is rated a five, then changes to a three, would save about $500 a year, Garcia said.

"The ISO rating is a good push for local businesses," he said.

With the better rating, more businesses may be encouraged to come to, or remain in, the community, which could result in increased sales tax revenue, he said.

In addition to insurance savings, there could be lower costs for the departments.

The Unified Fire Authority in Salt Lake County proposed to provide service in northern Utah County, but Garcia said the local groups would do as well.

"We could do the same thing," he said. "We just need to have that ability to increase that level of service."

Freeman said there would be savings available to combine departments.

"We could fund a more efficient department," he said. "You don't have to duplicate specialized equipment. Plus it would be better service."

"Pleasant Grove needs a fire station in the north end," Freeman said. "American Fork needs one up by the temple. We could actually utilize a station south of Lone Peak High. One station would fit all three cities' needs."

Most of the communities in north Utah County have joined a metro service agreement, and Freeman reported that had been successful. It is not as formalized as a district.

"It's actually working well," he said. "We saved at least 20 percent on our medical supplies doing it that way. The chiefs work really well together."

Garcia reported that both he and Freeman were not concerned about who would be chief.

"The north valley chiefs are just about providing service," he said. "It has to come with more resources and shared resources."

If two or more communities decide to create a formal district, that entity could tax residents.

"The cities would probably reduce their taxes by that amount," Freeman said.

If all the north county districts combine, it would be the third largest fire department in the state, Freeman said.

"It's a big undertaking," he said. "I believe in the long run it's going to save money and be more efficient and be of better service to the people."

They say they have the same goal of the best service available.

Garcia referred to a recent fire, which started in a motor home and began to spread to the adjacent home and one next door. Because it was within the station's first service area, the responders were able to get there quickly enough to limit the damage.

"It would have taken two or three houses it if had been on the east side of the city," Garcia said. "That fire is a good example of success. Everybody is still living in those houses because we were able to get there quickly enough."

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