Fire departments look at ways to fight costs

Rachel Abbey

Police departments are notorious for their expensive tickets. Recreational services in cities usually charge fees for at least some of their events. Fire departments, however, are a different story.

“Most fire departments are relatively expensive operations to have,” said Chief William Shaw of the Solon Fire Department. Shaw is the Northeast representative of the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association, which covers 12 counties including Portage.

Fire departments have no source of revenue, Shaw said, and cost savings are a common reason communities look into creating fire districts.

The Kent Fire Department approached City Council a few weeks ago to discuss the possibility of creating a countywide fire district, having all the fire departments in the county work as one. At this point, the city is simply examining the various possibilities, and it could be years before a recommendation would be made.

Fire districting can range from departments working together to purchase large items, to giving one another mutual aid on calls, to complete consolidation into one department. At the council meeting, Chief James Williams said Kent would only recommend a plan that “best serves the people we serve.” A joint fire district could be more efficient, eliminating duplication of major equipment, standardizing service in the area and costing the city, and taxpayers, less money.

“It’s not for the fire department. It’s not for the city. It’s for the people we serve,” Williams told the council.

None of the 12 counties in Shaw’s representation area have countywide districts, but some share equipment and personnel between cities, he said. In these districts, one department may purchase a fire engine, another buys the ambulance and all the contributing cities have representation on the staff.

Other parts of the state, such as in parts of Cleveland, have also been studying the concept of fire districts, Shaw said. Most of the motivation driving these studies comes back to cost.

“It’s a pretty costly insurance plan to have for your community,” he said.

There are, however, possible downsides to consolidating departments, and Shaw said they can come from residents, staff or administrators.

While a joint fire district may create cost savings that residents like, many may balk about sharing resources, Shaw said. Often, residents want to have their own department fully equipped, but joint districts usually keep equipment, such as trucks and ambulances, spread throughout the coverage area.

Administrators also want to keep their area at the top of the district, he said, and may become conflicted when what is best for the district is not necessarily best for the area they represent. Administrators also tend to worry about how to divide the power.

“They do relinquish some control,” Shaw added.

Common staff concerns have to do with administrators as well. How departments align workloads and pay rates is a major issue when consolidating.

Kent’s Fire Department plans to keep the council up-to-date as talks surrounding the countywide fire district concept continue.

Contact public affairs reporter Rachel Abbey at [email protected].