Support for Fire Department Shared Services
And Want To Get It Right
In 2016 the Board Of Trustees commissioned a joint study with Maplewood on the feasibility of combining fire departments, with the goal of determining whether the greater scale of a combined department could provide better services on a more sustainable basis at a lower cost. The 161-page study was delivered in October of 2017 (available on the South Orange website) and concluded that a combined fire department can deliver on all of our goals and recommended that they should be consolidated.
We want to see the benefits in the study realized for South Orange, but the devil is in the details. The path from recommendation to agreement will not be without some compromises. We know that without focus we will never get there.
The challenge now is to find a way to implement this proposal in order to achieve the benefits of scale while maintaining the quality and personal service we expect from living in a tight knit, small town. It is hard to imagine any other question in front of the BOT that is more critical to our future. We will make this issue our top priority.
The report outlines three possible scenarios for the merger, with savings ranging from $582,000 to $1,600,000 annually to be divided across both towns. While these potential savings are enticing and critical to our financial future, they cannot be the first consideration in deciding whether or not to move forward. First, any merger must maintain or improve the level of service we receive today from our Fire Department, and must treat the people who serve in our department fairly.
Beyond those overriding concerns, we have a number of more specific questions that need to be answered:
In any shared service there will be decisions that may impact one town more than the other — that is the nature of sharing. We must have an equal say in the making of those decisions now and into the future. The study proposes that each town appoint an equal number of voting members to the new governing board, which should be a non-negotiable point.
The study identifies a substantial difference in the way each town delivers Emergency Medical Services. In Maplewood EMS service is provided by the Fire Department, funded by the Fire Department budget, and EMS calls account for more than half their calls. In South Orange our Fire Department plays virtually no role in EMS; instead our volunteer Rescue Squad is the primary provider of EMS (supplemented by a paid service during the day) - which provides an outstanding level of service. Combining Fire Departments will require one or both towns to make changes to how EMS is delivered and funded — this area requires much more detail.
The study identifies the need to upgrade multiple systems as part of merging the departments but provides no estimates for the one time or ongoing costs of these upgrades. As in any merger of two complex organizations, there will be integration costs that will need to be paid for and may impact the potential savings. These costs need to be factored in before making any decisions.
Finally, there needs to be a mechanism by which we can adjust the allocation of the expenses of the shared department in the future as things change: the allocation cannot be set in stone.
On the South Orange Board Of Trustees, candidates Bobby Brown, Toshie Davis and Ed Moore will make answering these questions and reaching a decision on this proposal a top priority. It has been 17 months since the report was delivered — time in which we could have been enjoying improved services at lower cost, as well as time in which we have put the members of our Fire Department in limbo, not knowing what the future holds for them. We need to focus and finish.