Suburbs consider merging firefighting forces

Measure looks to keep budgets from going up in smoke

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Increasingly tight budgets have some south suburban municipalities looking into sharing or merging their fire protection and emergency medical services as a way to save money.

The adjoining suburbs of Alsip, Chicago Ridge and Oak Lawn in recent months have signed on to a study by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus that explores the feasibility of merging some function of their fire departments or consolidating them into a single fire protection district.

"Villages can't afford their fire departments anymore," Chicago Ridge President Eugene Siegel said during a June village board meeting when trustees agreed to contribute $3,750 toward the study.

An outright merger of the three departments would combine Chicago Ridge's two fire stations and 31 full-time and paid-on-call personnel, Oak Lawn's three stations and 88 full-time firefighting positions, and Alsip's two stations and 39 full-time firefighters. The three departments combined serve nearly 85,000 residents.

"Given the current state of the economy and the reductions in state funding for municipalities, it's important to find ways to achieve cost savings which are not only good for local governments but also for taxpayers," said Oak Lawn village manager Larry Deetjen.

Currently, 56 cents of every tax dollar coming to Oak Lawn is used for public safety, including police and fire protection and other emergency services, Deetjen said.

An outright merger of the three fire departments would not be unique. Several communities across the nation have combined their fire and medical emergency services and/or their police departments in recent years, according to the National League of Cities.

Last year, the fire department in south suburban Worth merged with the North Palos Fire Protection District. Worth officials estimated that the village last year saved $291,000 in maintenance, insurance and overtime pay costs as a result of the consolidation and projected that it will save the municipality "millions" over the next several years.

Furthermore, Deetjen noted that the three communities under study, as well as other southwest suburbs, already have successfully combined some basic municipal operations. Oak Lawn, for example, provides Lake Michigan water to 12 communities in the region and 911 dispatch service to four police departments and seven fire departments in the area.

Oak Lawn village Trustee Tom Phelan broached the subject of creating a fire prevention district including Oak Lawn and one or more of its surrounding communities last year, calling it "logical" in light of the increasing cost to the village of fire protection and emergency medical services.

"It certainly has the potential to be a huge cost savings for us," Chicago Ridge village Trustee Brad Grove said during a recent Village Board meeting at which consolidating that village's fire protection services with its neighboring communities was discussed.

But merging fire departments, should it reach that point, wouldn't be an easy task, municipal experts say. According to a 2009 report by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus on combining municipal police and/or fire services, several obstacles must be overcome, including resolution of any conflicting labor contract and pension provisions between departments, creation of a governing body and a determination of how to finance the combined operation.

Creation of a fire protection district likely would have to be approved by a majority of the voters in the affected municipalities, the report noted. That's something that recent history has shown is difficult to achieve, especially if voters also are asked to approve a tax to support the district.

Consequently, an outright merger of local fire department likely would become a "logistical nightmare," Bob Lanz, who heads Oak Lawn's fire union, said last year in response to Phelan's fire department consolidation proposal.

Even if all of the obstacles could be overcome, the process of merging or even significantly integrating fire and/or police functions among municipalities could take months, if not years, according to the mayors caucus report.

Municipalities considering consolidating their fire or police departments might want to first standardize and increase sharing equipment, participating in joint training exercises and partnering on office support and record keeping functions, the report said.

A major concern of firefighters is whether a consolidated department would maintain the current staffing levels of firefighters in Alsip, Chicago Ridge and Oak Lawn. Siegel said the number of firefighting personnel would not likely change, at least in Chicago Ridge.

Chicago Ridge fire Chief Randall Grossi added that firefighters probably would not object to creating a fire protection district as long as their pay and benefits were not reduced.