The six area fire departments that participated in a recent study would function more efficiently and effectively if they consolidated into one department, according to a consulting firm.
Summit Lake Consulting came to this conclusion after reviewing and analyzing data from the Herkimer, Ilion, Mohawk and Little Falls career fire departments and the Mohawk, Frankfort and East Herkimer volunteer departments, and meeting with fire chiefs and others to discuss the various departments’ needs and expectations.
“We found the departments are functional, but not as effective as they could be. Most alarms are answered within a reasonable time span, but not always within the current national standards,” according to the study. “There is a tendency to have a ‘do the best with what we have’ attitude that can be dangerous to the operational effectiveness of the departments.”
The consultants outlined three possible options for a consolidated fire district and stated, “The consolidation of fire service deliveries will lead to more efficient use of public money.”
The outcome of those findings is now in the hands of local fire chiefs and elected officials.
“There’s no time frame. The chiefs are going to sit down and see what each is willing to accomplish,” said Robert Vandawalker, director of Herkimer County Emergency Services. He said some departments might pull out of the study. “We may use none of the options listed, but it may give us some good ideas. At least it will open up the line of communications.
“Something does need to be done,” he added. “We’ve seen response time increase, especially in the volunteer departments where manpower is down. That’s a good indication we need to reverse that trend somehow.”
As a department loses manpower, he said, the ratio of responders to citizens increases. “People don’t get the individual attention they should or it could be delayed unless you have a good warning what is coming and we didn’t,” said Vandawalker.
On June 27, he said, “We had a watch for minor flooding; that’s culverts and puddles. While we did look at the situation, we went to bed pretty confident that the storm would miss us, but it tracked a different way.”
The study shows a duplication of apparatus and vehicles, said Vandawalker.
“We could look at sharing more on that end,” he said.
He added, “We’re also trying to break a huge culture and tradition — unfortunately, tradition doesn’t mean progress. Whatever comes out of it should be an improvement.”
Ilion Fire Chief James Trevett didn’t know how the village board in Ilion would respond to the study.
Page 2 of 3 - “The chiefs will still meet and hopefully come up with something we could present to all the boards,” he said. “Whether they agree or disagree, my hope is that the six chiefs will still meet together. These weren’t the perfect suggestions for us, but my hope is that we will keep moving forward. There are a lot of things in there that might not work for us, but there may be some things that would give us an idea of something that might work.”
Herkimer Fire Chief John Spanfelner expects the chiefs will be meeting with their municipal officials and then the chiefs will meet as a group.
“If the other municipalities all want to jump on board, we’ll see the best course to go with,” he said. “Somebody might say this is not for us at all. We could mix the options. Our main goal is to try to deliver a better service at, hopefully, a lower cost.
Spanfelner said the paid departments don’t have the funds for more training and equipment and the volunteer departments are dealing with manpower and funding issues.
“We’re trying to look at that and see what the best fit is going to be,” he said.
A merger of even half the departments involved in the study would help with training, he said. The cost of firefighting apparatus and equipment is also a concern. “You’re looking at $400,000 for a new pumper,” said Spanfelner.
“We wanted to take the lead in this rather than have the state come in and say you’re going to do this,” he said, adding any change would “definitely not be overnight, but if the fire service is going to survive, we need to do something.”
Little Falls Mayor Robert Peters said he has looked at the study, but has questions. “I know all of the mayors will be looking into it,” he said.
Peters said the mayors will want to make sure “everybody is saving money, that we’re not just giving money away.”
He said he has looked at the salaries proposed in the study. “I guess that’s what you need to run a good department, but is it going to save the taxpayers money? We could not have overtime with this,” said Peters.
He said he is in favor of consolidating the fire services and thinks the police departments should be next. “I know everyone wants their own, but it’s crunch time,” said Peters.
“I’m not sold on it,” said Mohawk Fire Chief Daniel Mabbett of the recommendation to consolidate the departments. “I see no benefits for the volunteer departments.”
Page 3 of 3 - For the communities that currently rely on volunteer firefighters, it would mean higher taxes, he said.
“I don’t really see a good benefit to the community right now moneywise,” said Mabbett.
As for working together, he said the departments are already doing that.
“We’re working with East Herkimer, we’re working with Cedarville and Van Hornesville,” said Mabbett.
Mohawk firefighters have also received help from Ilion and Herkimer and are available to respond to calls in those communities.
Frankfort Fire Chief Charles Conigliaro said his focus has been on the summaries and findings regarding staffing and recruitment and retention.
“I think the study definitely proves we need to work together on purchasing and training,” he said.
Any of the options for consolidation would carry a financial impact on communities, especially those that do not currently have a career department, he pointed out, adding consolidating multiple departments into one fire district would be a legislative issue that would have to be handled by village and town boards and could take years.
“The place to start is right here. If we trained together and purchased equipment together and tested and calibrated it together, we’d each save some dollars,” said Conigliaro.
He said the departments could look at a 10- or 15-year plan for equipment purchases. Standardizing the brand would allow the departments to save money on required equipment testing, he said.
East Herkimer Fire Chief Ben Keller said he would be presenting the study at an upcoming meeting of the board of fire commissioners to give them some insight on the results of the study.
“Certainly some of the options can be implemented immediately,” he said. “We’re kind of going that way anyway as far as joint training and automatic mutual aid response.”
He said the chiefs would be meeting to see if there are options they can implement. Some of the items would be up to the legislative bodies, he said, “but the fire departments being on board with the options would reflect in a positive way.”
Keller added no one should expect this to be an overnight process.
“We’ll look at the options to see what is best and most appropriate for community,” he said.