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August 27, 2008 > Should fire services be regionalized?

Should fire services be regionalized?

Newark Fire Department (NFD) received the final draft of a "Standards of Cover Analysis and Strategic Plan" in March 2008. The conclusions of this study indicated the need for additional staffing to ensure that NFD "can respond with the minimum number of personnel necessary to safely and effectively perform a rescue and combat a fire within a critical response time window, to reduce resource drawdown due to simultaneous incidents and to reduce the Department's dependency on neighboring agencies for emergency response."

In a Newark city council meeting held just prior to the council's summer break for the month of August, a presentation by Fire Chief Demetrious Shaffer asked for authorization to explore the concept of regional services for fire protection. He noted interest by the fire chiefs of Fremont and Union City. At this time Union City has expressed support of a feasibility study. TCV asked Chief Shaffer about this study and what it will accomplish.

TCV: What is the goal of this study?

Shaffer: We asked both councils [Newark and Union City] to authorize a feasibility study to look at consolidation at some level - any level - of Union City Fire and Newark Fire. The results could be anything from, "No, do nothing and keep everything as it is" to partial consolidation or full consolidation. Another component is to explore alternatives that are more operationally and cost efficient for the agencies. This could include examining the possibility of contract fire protection with another entity. Is there another delivery model that makes more sense from a cost or operational perspective?

TCV: How did this study begin?

Shaffer: It began with a three-way discussion between the fire chiefs of Fremont, Newark and Union City. All of us thought this was a good idea and a responsible thing to do. Newark and Union City are in a position currently to explore this while Fremont, due to other priorities, was unable to join the study at this time.

TCV: Is the focus different from mutual aid agreements between cities?

Shaffer: Mutual aid agreements are based on each jurisdiction having its own fire department. Each offers its resources to others if needed. The reciprocity is under a quid pro quo arrangement. There is no charge for services since each recognizes that at times one area needs help and at other times a request may be necessary in an opposite direction. These resources are available by request.

We are talking about something different. Is there a more efficient way to do business? Newark and Union City are two similar size fire departments providing services to similar size communities. Do we need two independent staffs in support of these departments? This isn't just about efficiency, it is also about effectiveness. An example might be training. Each of us has basically the same training mandates. Should each department have a separate training staff or can one group focus on training and the other staff focus on another set of mandates? We may have the potential to increase our efficiency through different utilization of resources.

TCV: Would an extreme example of this be a joint fire department?

Shaffer: The outcome could be any combination. This is not a proposal, simply a study of the possibilities. In order to make any decision, we need all the information - costs, personnel, administration procedures, regulations, response areas. Fires don't wait for resources to come from another area. They can grow very rapidly so we need to investigate response times. It is difficult to presuppose the answer at this point.

TCV: Will this study be applicable to other city services?

Shaffer: This study is applicable only to fire services. We will keep the executive team of the city well informed so in a pure sense, it could extend to other areas of government but that is not the scope of this project.

TCV: Has this study begun yet?

Shaffer: Both city councils have approved issuing an RFP (request for proposal) for a consultant to do the study. That RFP has been written and was issued on August 11. Proposals are due by August 29. A Steering Committee composed of stakeholders from all levels of both departments will examine the respondents and make a recommendation. We expect to take this back to the councils in October.

TCV: Do you see regionalization as a wave of the future?

Shaffer: I think so. It makes sense from many different aspects. Each level of government and entity that is making duplicate efforts may profit from a regional approach to common issues. We have already started this in the fire service with a regional approach to hazardous materials response and weapons of mass destruction. We are at the very beginning.

TCV: Can regionalization become inefficient?

Shaffer: At some point these services can become too large. On the emergency response side, we have many tools that enable us to respond to calls from other departments. However, we are not solely about emergency response. As the chief I have to look at the whole picture including community outreach and education, CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and PEP (Personal Emergency Preparedness). A big part of these efforts is being close to your community and understanding what they want.

TCV: Will this study examine complete regionalization of fire services?

Shaffer: This study will look at everything. Our job is to provide the City Manager and City Council with as much information as possible to make an informed decision. I do not think anyone involved in this process would support any conclusion that will diminish the current level of fire protection and emergency response. The goal is to find out if we can be more effective with our current resources.

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