AUTHOR’S NOTE: Part one of this series (last month) examined the existing state of regional fire services in Maine, and found that, while there are a few examples of inter-municipal integration, with both full-time and volunteer staffing, such efforts are rare, and the municipal fire department remains the basic model, despite questions about its cost and overall effectiveness. Part two expands the scope to national trends, and concludes with an examination of the possibility of future regional efforts in Maine.)
Public schools, water and sewer, solid waste collection and disposal, jails and rural police patrols – all are examples of public services that are commonly provided on a regional basis in Maine. If not the rule, regionalization is certainly not the exception in most of these areas, and consolidation has continued in response to growing populations and the complexity of the service being provided.
Could fire services be offered regionally? As a technical question, the answer is yes, but, around most of the country, there are relatively few truly regional departments, and significant obstacles to the creation of new ones exist. History is perhaps the biggest one.
The way county governments were formed turns out to be crucial in the way fire departments are organized. In New England, departments developed from small, voluntary associations that rarely if ever involved more than one town. County government is less developed here than in any other part of the country, and in none of the six New England states are counties broadly involved in fire protection.
That isn’t true everywhere. Maryland is perhaps the most striking example of county government that, seemingly, does everything. “In many parts of the country, fire equipment can’t go over a boundary line. But not in Maryland,” said Wayne Powell, branch chief for mitigation at the U.S. Fire Administration in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “In Laurel, where four counties come together, you can have four engines from four different counties responding to the same fire. In others, there are five counties and two states,” he said, referring to neighboring Virginia.
The Maryland county departments are not, as one might expect, composed only of career firefighters. Some of them incorporate rural areas where volunteers predominate. There are few jurisdictional disputes because everyone expects services to be provided cooperatively. “You couldn’t build it today,” Powell said.
Even in the mid-Atlantic region, however, there are key differences between states. In Maryland and Virginia, counties are large – “as far as you could ride on horseback to the county seat in a day,” Powell said, and county governments provide comprehensive services. In so-called “commonwealth states,” such as Pennsylvania and Kentucky, counties are small – “as far as you could walk” – and county governments are much less active.
If Maine were to pursue regionalization, there are four basic models to draw on. One is analogous to regional school districts as they’ve developed in Maine. Rather than being centered on a large town or city, they tend to incorporate outlying rural communities that have a hard time providing professional services on their own. They may border a large municipality or – in rare cases – even surround it, but there seems little impetus for bringing the whole area under one management unit. States with small cities and large rural areas – Idaho and Montana are examples – have seen this kind of fire service consolidation.
The second model involves contracted services, where a central city is the leader, and attempts to improve its own efficiency – and counter often burgeoning suburban growth – by offering fire protection to the towns surrounding the big city. Contracted services have been offered successfully in Los Angeles County and around Salt Lake City.
Third, there is the fire district model, where the state grants the right to levy fees or taxes, much like the sewer and water districts prevalent around Maine. Fire districts in some states can be quite large, but they are most common where municipal boundaries are relatively flexible. In states like Indiana and Florida, cities can literally grow by annexing suburban or previously rural areas, so multi-town fire districts are an easily accepted concept. Maine has not seen a merger of towns or significant annexation since Dover-Foxcroft was created over a century ago.
Finally, there are private fire-fighting companies that literally will only fight a fire if you’ve paid your fire bill in advance. The biggest such company is Metco, which got its start in Scottsdale, Arizona This for-profit company now offers fire and emergency medical services in 25 states, but does not operate in New England. Its inquiries have generally roused opposition from unionized firefighters, Powell said, and there appears little chance that Metco or similar companies will expand here anytime soon.
How to do it
How do regionalized fire services work? Frank Florence, now senior fire service specialist for the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Massachusetts, was chief of the Salt Lake department when an ambitious effort to integrate 14 departments around the city core began. The Valley Chiefs Association, which began with a common dispatch system, eventually expanded to full fire protection, with most services centered in Salt Lake City, but with equipment stationed around the region.
Each town chooses the level of fire protection it wants from a menu of options. Fees are based on a formula that reflects annual call volume, the type of buildings needing protection, plus a population growth factor adjusted annually. The system takes advantage of a statewide purchasing system, and has gradually standardized equipment throughout the region. Most towns, Florence said, get significantly better fire protection than they could afford on their own, at a cost no greater than they’d expect to pay for a local department. If the service is deemed unsatisfactory, members have the right to cancel the contract after giving notice. Even here, though, the system isn’t entirely stable. Discontent with the formula has led to criticism among member towns, though not yet to any actual withdrawal from the system.
Direct regionalization, Wayne Powell said, is most often prompted by rapid population growth. Tennessee and Florida are two states that, with strong county governments, are seeing mergers at a fairly rapid rate. In Florida, “the cost of local government services is rising so rapidly that there really isn’t any other choice,” he said. In Maine, which ranked in the bottom 10 states for population growth in the 1990s, this rationale would carry far less weight.
Interest in regional solutions remains strong, even if bringing them about can be elusive. A survey of studies from the U.S. Fire Administration shows some common themes and designs.
In Ada County, Idaho, near Boise, two small companies merged in 1967, and became North Ada County Fire and Rescue in 1994. A recent study to expand the district to seven communities found that “major increased service levels were possible with no increase in cost,” and that the larger department would offer more opportunities for professional advancement and specialization.
An even more ambitious effort by the Southwest Council of Governments in Strongsville, Ohio, proposes merging 18 municipal departments in Cuyahoga County, south of Cleveland. The study reports that “the fire chiefs were in favor of the regional concept” while mayors were “by and large ambivalent to the concept”. The study notes that fire calls have been steadily dropping “due to the efforts of code enforcement” – a phenomenon observable nationwide, including in Maine – while emergency medical calls continue to increase, providing new opportunities for regional efforts.
Florence said the support for mergers by fire chiefs, and opposition from elected officials, is not surprising. Of the chiefs, he said, “They’ll still have a job, and it may be a better job from the professional point of view.” For the mayors, there are fewer clear advantages, and “the perceived loss of local control” is often a stumbling block.
Overall, 16 of the 18 Ohio chiefs supported the proposed merger, while only half the mayors favored it. Most tellingly, the chiefs believed a merger would improve morale among firefighters, while the mayors thought it would harm morale.
There are, meanwhile, studies that show financial gains from merged departments. In the North Shore region in Wisconsin, “$l million was saved over three years in operating costs” as seven fire companies began operating as one. The new department managed to reduce is rolling stock over the same period from “48 pieces to 35, of standard make and design.”
Powell agrees with the observation that “the homeowner doesn’t care what patch is on the sleeve of the uniform. What he cares about is whether his house is saved.” Powell is more cautious, however, about predicting cost savings from regionalization. The main expense of firefighting still comes in the form of salaries, at least where career firefighters dominate. Since merged departments include companies with dramatically differing salaries, the tendency is to level up to the higher salaries, rather than to agree on a median level. This can rapidly eat up savings gained from the more efficient use of equipment, he said.
The expense of career firefighter salaries would not likely be the biggest issue in Maine, however. The state may be more dependent on volunteers than any other. In round numbers, Maine has about 1,000 career firefighters and 11,000 volunteers, or a ratio of 1 to 11. Nationally, according to the U.S. Fire Profile for 2000, there are 286,800 career firefighters and 777,350 volunteers, or a ratio of 1 to 2.7. A breakdown by state is being prepared, but is not yet available.
Making direct comparisons between the cost of departments in different states and regions would be difficult, if not impossible, Powell said. Because there are so many different arrangements between state, county, and local government over such issues as forest fire protection, regional purchasing and rural coverage, such comparisons would likely be misleading.
Prospects for change
Is regionalization a likely outcome for Maine fire protection services in the foreseeable future? Winslow Town Manager Edward Gagnon thinks it ought to be. “The moment is getting closer all the time,” he said.
Gagnon admits that sentiment in favor of single-town departments remains strong: “No one wants to give up their territory.” But the cost of new equipment is so high that towns must investigate the possibility of sharing more actively, he said, noting that the Waterville-Winslow area has four departments operating within 10 miles of each other.
The obstacle here may not be so much opposition from fire chiefs or even selectmen and councilors, but from the volunteers themselves. In small towns, particularly, fire departments are inherently social organizations, and “volunteers have a lot of friends” in the rest of the community come town meeting time.
Nonetheless, Gagnon thinks change is coming. Training requirements for volunteers, which can be as much as 500-600 hours, discourage casual sign-ups, and the rising cost of municipal services in general is beginning to prompt taxpayer resistance. “It just isn’t there,” he said of funding for local departments. “The more we resist [change] the more we’re going to put ourselves out of business.”
The most likely model, he said, is the Sinclair Act of 1957 that launched regional school districts in Maine. The act contained significant financial incentives for towns to merge their schools, he said. If the state is seriously interested in making public safety services more efficient, it will offer similar incentives again, he said.
How much need is there for improved services, as opposed simply to greater cost effectiveness? Steve Willis, state director of Fire Service and Training, said that Maine does rather well, at least considering the local firefighting challenges, through most of the I-95 corridor heading up to northern Maine. There are gaps, though. While he praised regional cooperation in the Bangor-Brewer area, service in outlying communities is often questionable, and Washington County is one area that struggles to come up to the mark. “There are blank spots on the map,” he said, while emphasizing that his assessment applies to overall regions, rather than individual local departments. He urges local citizens to investigate fire safety records and push for improvements, where possible.
Gorham Fire Chief Bob Lefebvre, whose department shares stations with three other towns, thinks emergency medical services offer a likely avenue to greater regional cooperation. While he thinks it’s unlikely the Greater Portland area will ever have a single fire department, a regional ambulance service is by no means far-fetched. Still, it won’t be easy, he said.
A first logical step toward greater cooperation is unifying dispatch services, a move going on all over Maine in response to the statewide E-911 system. Yet local concern is still intense enough so that when one Cumberland County town proposed joining the county system, “townspeople came out in droves, and said they didn’t want to lose local dispatch,” Lefebvre said.
He believes that a regional, Portland-based EMS system, possibly run by the county, is feasible: “There’s no question it has merit, but you’d find much opposition.” To the extent that local control can be preserved, it would make a regional system more palatable. The success of his own department’s system, which shares services with Scarborough, Standish and Windham, stems in part from that factor. “Each department has kept its identity,” he said. “We haven’t given up control to outside influences.”
In Madawaska, Fire Chief Norman Cyr says that the budget squeeze in a community with a declining population but constant demand for services could spur more regional thinking; Madawaska, similar to most Aroostook County towns, lost population in the last census, from 4,803 to 4,534.
Volunteers aren’t easy to come by; in past years, he’s had 60 call firefighters available but is now down to 42. “Do we have sufficient manpower to do the job? Probably yes,” he said, “but anything lower than this and we won’t.” Strengthening mutual aid agreements with Frenchville and Fort Kent has helped, but, he has questions about whether Madawaska can still rely on a volunteer-based force.
Blue Hill Fire Chief Dennis Robertson is willing to speculate more freely about what might happen as volunteers become harder to find, and fewer are willing to undergo the rigorous training involved. Like most volunteer departments, his is becoming older, and fewer firefighters from age 35 to 45 are available, mostly because of increased job demands. “The smell of Ben Gay is pretty strong at some of our meetings,” he said. And an active Hancock County fire association has prompted thinking about what might come next.
“It goes against my nature. I’m a pretty traditional Mainer,” Robertson said, but he thinks the idea of a four or five-town department has promise, and could happen within a decade. “I could see hiring a few full-time firefighters and basing them in Brooklin. They’d handle the little calls, the fender benders and such. Then, when somebody’s business is on fire, you break out the whole department.”
Robertson is a big believer in safety inspections, particularly for commercial property, but his volunteers don’t have time to do them often enough. That would be a job for career employees. And the sheer complexity of calls – with new demands developing all the time – often taxes the training and resources of volunteers.
Like most departments, his was called out to check out white powder reports during the recent anthrax scares. “They called the fire department, and we came. We may have flopped around like an alewife at low tide, but we intend to keep doing it.”
South Portland Chief John True agrees that demands on fire departments suggest the need for greater expertise and specialization. His department was called out nearly 20 times for suspected anthrax contamination. “We didn’t ask for this job, but we got it,” he said.
Hazardous materials specialists – or “hazmat” in current jargon – are a good example of the need for cooperation. “Your hazmat team may get called out one or twice a year, but when there’s a major evacuation, you better believe they’re needed,” True said. He doubts each town, or even each city, can go it alone. Specialized training is expensive, and even a basic hazmat suit costs $1,500, he said. His firefighters are now undergoing federally mandated training in Weapons of Mass Destruction. “What I wonder is, what’s the next incident going to be like?” he said. Recent acts of terrorism have essentially answered the question of, “Could it happen here?”
Phil McGouldrick was fire chief in South Portland for 10 years before moving on to Cape Elizabeth – going from a largely career force to an all-volunteer one. He had put in 20 years, and was ready to slow down. McGouldrick is proud of his department – “We’re one of the more fortunate ones, in attendance and training” – and the community’s ISO fire safety rating is 3, one of the best in the state.
Yet he, too, thinks that the pressures of growth and training demands make regional cooperation a higher priority. Like Chief Lefebvre, he thinks that EMS might be the best place to start, and can envision a regional network involving Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook, Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth. A regional corps of paramedics with advanced training would be an ideal supplement to the low-intensity transports that make up the bulk of calls, he said.
While discussions have been low-key, McGouldrick said, “There’s some interest in the city [Portland]. Whether it’s enough I don’t know. Usually, it’s a matter of getting the right people interested.” Portland’s well-advertised budget problems might make city officials more receptive to a form of contract services, in which the city could spread costs and gain additional revenue. Nor does he see expanding EMS as having major startup costs. “All the stations are in place. The infrastructure is already there.”
McGouldrick said fire and rescue departments are under increasing pressure to be professional and respond quickly to emergencies. “The big question is what do you want? What does the public want? If it’s the best service, you can’t beat having people at the station full time.”