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Consensus Forms Around Functional Merger Of Agencies

Fire services consolidation

The cities of Bingen and White Salmon, and Klickitat County Fire Protection District No. 3 have agreed to work toward an interlocal agreement that would functionally consolidate fire suppression services in southwestern Klickitat County.

That was the upshot of last Wednesday's meeting at the White Salmon Fire Hall, called by Fire District No. 3 commissioners to open formal discussions with Bingen and White Salmon representatives about whether the entities should pursue consolidation of fire services at some agreed-upon level.

Roger Ferris, executive director of the Washington State Fire Commissioners Association, moderated the meeting and proved to hold a wealth of information about the ins and outs, and pros and cons of establishing a unified firefighting response that is not shackled by political boundaries or because of liability concerns.

But, as helpful as he was to the decision-makers sitting around the conference table, it was Ferris who came away impressed by what he heard from other participants.

Upon learning from Fire District No. 3 Chief Chuck Virts that the two municipal fire departments and Fire District No. 3 crews already operate under a form of functional consolidation -- "We now have a multijurisdictional response to every incident. We have more resources en route after a call goes out than ever before" -- and conduct joint training sessions for all firefighters in the surrounding area.

"It's a compliment that you are doing that," Ferris said for the benefit of local fire officials. "That's to be commended. That's excellent."

Still, Ferris recommended that those arrangements be memorialized in writing as a starting point for an expanded interlocal agreement. Currently, Bingen and White Salmon fire departments are, more or less, functionally consolidated with Fire District No. 3 through mutual-aid contracts for fire suppression services, noted White Salmon Fire Chief Bill Hunsaker.

Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes said the discussion brought out that "what we're currently doing really can't be improved on much," and "what we're doing is the best fit for the situation here, which I believe is what the majority of firefighters -- at least the ones I've talked to -- want to keep in place and improve on."

Under a functional consolidation -- which Ferris likened to dating that could lead to a marriage proposal -- cities and districts pool their resources to maximize their capabilities and reduce costs, but they don't lose oversight of their respective fire departments.

Another alternative discussed was statutory consolidation, which would involve the annexation of Bingen and White Salmon into a new taxing district that would have complete oversight of fire services. The drawback to this option, Ferris noted, is that withdrawing is a complicated affair akin to divorce.

"That's why I recommend you start out with a functional merger for a year or two. It's like dating; if it doesn't work out, you can break it off. Statutory consolidation is like a marriage and much harder to get out of," Ferris said.

The consensus of the discussion group was to move forward with an interlocal agreement that formalizes the three agencies' operating procedures and training, and provides for the hiring of a full- or part-time administrative staffer to help the cities and district comply with the state's record-keeping requirements.

Additionally, the group agreed to put together a joint management team made up of city and fire district representatives. Progress on these matters will be discussed at a follow-up meeting that has not been scheduled.

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