Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Possibilities for shared or consolidated fire services in southern Milwaukee County

A new report released by the Public Policy Forum this morning finds that the five municipal fire departments in the southern part of Milwaukee County work closely together, providing mutual aid in times of high activity and cooperating in areas ranging from training to special rescue teams.  That begs the question: could the five departments do even more to share services, perhaps even following the lead of the North Shore Fire Department to fully consolidate?

In order to assess that question, the Forum worked with administrators and fire chiefs from Franklin, Greendale, Greenfield, Hales Corners and Oak Creek to explore several options for enhanced sharing and coordination, including a model for a consolidated fire department. The project was initiated by a work group formed one year ago by the Intergovernmental Coordinating Council, which has been exploring a range of possibilities for greater service sharing among Milwaukee County’s 19 municipal governments.

A similar fire and dispatch project also is underway in Cudahy, Saint Francis and South Milwaukee.

The new Forum report focuses initially on consideration of enhanced cooperation and sharing in various areas of fire department operations that could occur within existing administrative and operational frameworks.

It then moves on to model three increasingly comprehensive consolidation approaches:

  • A Coordinated Support Services model, which involves the creation of unified bureaus to conduct training, vehicle maintenance and fire inspection services for the five departments collectively.
  • An Operational Consolidation model, which envisions a unified operations framework under which the “closest unit responds” regardless of municipal boundary, but which retains the five departments as separate entities with independent personnel, vehicles and governance.
  • A Full Consolidation model, under which the five departments would merge into a Southern Milwaukee County Fire Department with its own governance structure, budget, personnel, equipment, and operational framework.
The fiscal and operational analysis associated with those models suggests that each holds potential for improving the coordination and efficiency of fire and emergency medical services in the five communities. The analysis also shows, however, that substantial financial savings only would be achieved with the more comprehensive consolidation models.

The full consolidation model, for example, could yield more than $1 million per year in annual operating budget savings and nearly $4 million in vehicle replacement savings over five years, without closing any existing station locations or cutting firefighter positions. Those potential benefits, of course, must be weighed by each municipality against any perceived negative impacts that would result from ceding local control of fire and emergency medical services to a consolidated department.

The report concludes by suggesting that the five municipalities consider the findings within the context of their own financial and operational needs and concerns. As they do so, it says, “they should keep in mind that a phased approach is a viable option, in which enhanced service sharing is implemented first as a possible precursor to operational or full consolidation; and that additional planning and analysis – as well as creation of a framework for an intergovernmental agreement between the five communities – will be needed to definitively project fiscal and operational impacts associated with the operational and full consolidation models.”

The full report – which was sponsored in part by the Helen Bader Foundation and the Greater Milwaukee Committee – can be accessed here.