By JESSE BURKHARDT
Is it time to combine local fire districts in order to create a larger, more efficient firefighting capability for the community?
That was the question posed last week by Les Penny, a Fire Commissioner for Fire District No. 3. Fire District No. 3 provides fire protection for Husum, BZ Corner, and the Cherry Lane area of Snowden, as well as responding to calls in White Salmon and Bingen.
Although in recent months some residents in an area north of White Salmon have pushed to form their own fire district, Penny said he believes combining the existing three departments might be the better approach.
At the Aug. 4 meeting of the White Salmon City Council, Penny said he'd like to see a consolidated fire district "as opposed to the `stovepipes' we have now."
Penny said there would be financial benefits in consolidating Fire District No. 3 with Bingen and White Salmon. He stressed that consolidation would also offer significant enhancements in emergency response operations.
"Without coordination and adaptations and communities working together you have less than an optimal situation," Penny explained.
Penny offered strong praise for the Bingen Fire Department and the White Salmon Fire Department, and paid tribute to the traditions of the separate departments.
"It's the dedication and sacrifices made by all three fire districts in the area that allowed our communities to grow. This is a great place for people to come to, but they want to be safe," said Penny.
Penny added that Fire District No. 3 has worked to accelerate training among all three area fire departments in an effort to develop closer cooperation and improve the effectiveness of emergency responses to fire.
"We need to learn from each other for the best fire protection that can be available," Penny said.
Penny pointed out that sometimes one department's equipment is not compatible and won't work with another department's equipment -- but by training together, any incompatibility with equipment can be uncovered.
"My belief is, if you have three stovepipe operations, you have an implicit redundancy. If there is one organization, the machinery and training would be consistent. A consolidated district has benefits and certainly makes sense," Penny explained.
The bottom line of Penny's argument ought to appeal to White Salmon, a city that has faced daunting budget deficits over the last few years.
"Consolidating with Fire District 3 would provide savings for the city of White Salmon," Penny said. "I encourage the City Council to give it some thought."
After the meeting, White Salmon Mayor David Poucher said Penny's presentation raised an intriguing issue for the council members to consider.
"It was a good presentation," Poucher said. "It lets us know what's out there and what's available. I definitely agree with what Penny said about how we don't care who comes to put out a fire or give us CPR. We have three local fire departments. And in this day and age, it certainly makes sense to have one fire department."
White Salmon Fire Chief Bill Hunsaker said it was too early to know how White Salmon's firefighters might react to a proposed consolidation.
"We have no official statement at this time," Hunsaker said. "I have mixed emotions on it, and am not sure what to say at this point. It will take a lot of work to do what he's [Penny] proposing. I've been thinking about it a lot. There are lots of pros and cons."
Hunsaker added that an effective consolidation would be difficult to craft.
"It's going to come down to a lot of work with some lawyers to get an agreement to work for everybody," Hunsaker explained.
Poucher said he believes the City Council needs to take a careful look at the idea.
Poucher, a former manager with the U.S. Forest Service who has seen his share of fires, said it was logical to have a larger organization to provide for firefighting services.
"You need to have a unified command," Poucher explained. "Having Fire District No. 3, White Salmon, and Bingen doesn't make sense from the point of view of handling a fire."
Poucher pointed out, however, that he was not ready to say he supports bringing the three districts together under one umbrella.
"I'm not advocating one or the other or prejudging, but it needs to be looked at and studied," he said.
City Council member Mark Peppel said he thought consolidation might be the wave of the future and should be considered.
"That's why we paid for the recent audit of the Fire Department, to see how operations could be improved," Peppel said. "Everybody is combining. We need to do that too, to save money. Why not end up as one district?"
"The citizens will have the final say," Poucher added. "This would go to a vote of the people. Everybody in White Salmon and Fire District No. 3 would get to vote on it. It would have to be passed by both -- and Bingen also if they want to be involved in this."
Penny said he plans to make a similar presentation regarding the possibility of consolidation to the Bingen City Council soon as well.