The timing is right for the cities of Aberdeen and Hoquiam to explore combining fire and ambulance services — that’s the conclusion of a recently-completed cooperative fire services feasibility study, according to consusltant and study project manager Don Bivins.
“This is a fortuitous time to look at integration of services,” he told a room of emergency service personnel, city leaders and others at an open house at the Port of Grays Harbor Commission meeting room Wednesday night.
Fortuitous because the fire departments already share a chief and assistant chief, Aberdeen’s Chief Tom Hubbard and Assistant Chief Rich Malizia. Hoquiam contracted for their service after its previous chief retired.
“You can share them for a limited time without too many bumps in the road, but not on a permanent basis,” said Bivins.
If the cities decide to create a Regional Fire Authority, which would merge both departments into one, and both departments had chiefs and assistant chiefs, the cities could find themselves in a situation where some of those positions would face layoffs. “And we always want to avoid layoffs,” said Bivins.
The study by Emergency Services Consulting International looked at the two fire departments individually and how they operate together, “looking at whether there is an integration opportunity that adds value, eliminates duplication and captures efficiencies,” said Bivins.
Some of the efficiencies that could be captured by combining both departments into one include streamlining things like vehicle repair and maintenance, training and a single fire investigative team, according to the study. It can also help with equipment inventory management and purchasing and standardizing equipment.
South Beach example
Aberdeen and Hoquiam have an example of some of the efficiencies that can be achieved by consolidating fire and emergency services in the South Beach Regional Fire Authority. Formed two years ago, it combined six agencies – Grays Harbor fire districts 3, 11 and 14, Pacific County Fire District 5, the Westport Fire Department and South Beach EMS – into one department.
The evening prior to this week’s public open house, both city councils met and heard from South Beach Chief Dennis Benn, who described the experience since the fire authority was formed.
“He said they are finding new benefits every day,” said Bivins. As an example, “They pulled all the inventory together into one station and found they had 100 sets of extra bunker gear.” One full set of bunker gear, the highly recognizable protective garb worn by firefighters, can cost up to $2,000.
“They also found 13 fire apparatus that didn’t work,” said Bivins. “The department determined the equipment wasn’t necessary, surplussed it, and rolled the proceeds into an equipment repair fund.”
Integrating departments can drastically cut down in redundancy of equipment and point to more efficient ways of distributing equipment across the service area.
“One example became the symbol of integration,” said Bivins. “There were 16 paper shredders between five agencies. And only one of (the agencies) had paid staff.”
Over the past couple of months, the South Beach Regional Fire Authority, through centralized inventory, has discovered more than $200,000 in efficiencies, Benn relayed through Bivins.
“We’re better together” is the mantra of that fire authority, emblazoned on the banner of its website. Morale is up, and instead of having six agencies moving in different directions, there is now one, with one governance board, one slate of officers, all moving in the same direction, said Bivins.
The study said a potential first step in integration would be Aberdeen providing contracted services with Hoquiam. Bivins described this as “a kind of shakedown cruise,” which gives both cities a chance to look at what that kind of integration means to each city. The downside of such an agreement, said Bivins, is that it can take away from the formation of a regional fire authority; “You can kind of get stuck on that step and it can short-change you into finding a permanent solution,” he said.
Regional Fire Authority
Forming a regional fire authority is a complex, multi-stepped process that can be years in the making. First, a fire authority committee must be formed to develop what would effectively become the charter of the fire authority, “soup to nuts,” the boundaries, financing, governance, and personnel and administration organizational structure, said Bivins.
Bivins said the committee could be made up of three individuals from each city, for a total of six. These six can be members of the current city councils of each city, but Bivins said there could be potential for conflicts of interest because of all the other issues considered by council members.
To avoid that potential, committee members could be selected from commission districts, as long as those six districts are of about equal geographical areas. “We tend to suggest to go that route other than the council members,” said Bivins.
Once the plan is formed, it is presented to both city councils. If both councils approve, they draft resolutions to send the plan to form a Regional Fire Authority to the voters. It is, in the end, the voters of both cities who will decide whether a fire authority is created or not.
The vote would require 60% approval if the funding mechanism for the fire authority includes a source that requires a supermajority vote for approval. In the case of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, a funding mechanism required for it to be effective would be an excess levee, which requires 60% voter approval, so the formation of the fire authority would also require 60% approval. This does not mean 60% over the voters in Hoquiam and 60% in Aberdeen would have to vote yes for it to pass, just 60% of the votes between the two cities, said Bivins.
Municipal fire district
In 2017, legislation was passed that allowed cities to form their own fire districts. Bivins said there is no historical information on the success of such an action by a city because not one has been formed since it became legal to do so. In the meantime, he said last he checked, 12 regional fire authorities have formed across the state, and “there is not a single one formed in the state that has dissolved.”
Bivins said he tends to believe the regional fire authority option is the best fit, calling it a “more meaningful change” for fire departments looking to increase efficiencies by integrating services.
John Spencer, financial analyst for the study, prefaced the financial details of integration by saying the numbers available would not necessarily reflect the reality of the fire authority upon its formation. After his presentation he told the Daily World that the financial impacts on property taxes do not become evident until after the fire authority committee has completed its plan describing the funding mechanisms used for its creation.
Preliminary financial breakdowns are included in the study report, which is available on both the Hoquiam and Aberdeen city websites.
Cosmopolis Mayor Frank Chestnut was in attendance Tuesday as an observer, which is how the city is currently viewing the report and Aberdeen and Hoquiam’s exploration of integration.
If a regional fire authority is formed and Cosmopolis or any other district or municipality wants to become a part of it, it can be included through annexation, said Bivins.
“Theoretically, if you think big enough, all of Grays Harbor County could be included with annexation,” he said.
Aberdeen Ward 3 City Councilman Jeff Cook asked Bivins about the risks involved with not integrating the departments.
“The bottom line is, both communities need to invest more in their fire departments, and that’s true if they decide to form a Regional Fire Authority or not,” said Bivins. “You’re on a precarious track today and I think it doesn’t end well without investment in the fire department.”