Several months ago I asked the question, “Is now the time for joint fire and EMS districts in Darke County?” I wanted to setup a group to study the situation, but since this was such a hot button issue, I decided to do the research myself.
I want to restate that I have no dog in this fight one way or the other. I was just trying to figure out if we are doing everything we can in the county to save lives and dollars. I do not hate firemen, ( I helped start a fire department, remember?), nor do I hate EMS personnel. I do not want people to die, starve, be thrown out in the street, lose their jobs, etc. With that being said, I have spent several months collecting ideas and some data from various people.
This was not a scientific study, just me asking people familiar with both subjects their ideas. I asked those who are still in both services, retired people, citizens, and former chiefs. I also had input from other cities and counties, too. I want to thank all of them for their input, it was most valuable, and gave me a good overview of what we need for Darke County. One thing that became clear to me was this: if you lived in a metropolitan area, you had a completely different view of the subjects compared to rural citizens. This I am sure of was due to finances, mainly, but also a personal connection to the services. Rural folks buy an awful lot of equipment with chicken dinners and pot pie suppers! What I discovered may surprise some people, and some will say “I told you so!” That’s fine, but now I more thoroughly understand what is best for Darke County, so here goes:
Do we need joint fire/EMS districts?
No, not at this time and here is why: First, what I learned is basically we have joint districts now, sort of, with our mutual aid agreements. All of our fire and EMS services work together in an emergency. This system has been in place for years, and works fine. Is it perfect? No, some things could improve and I have a few suggestions I will mention later on. I do believe in the future, joint districts will be a necessity driven by three factors: funding, manpower, and egos.
Most communities take care of their volunteer services pretty well with enough money to operate. Some of them are running a little tight, but most are fine. Funding might be leveling off in the future, but most of our fire departments are seeing their run totals either decreasing or leveling off. This is due to more fire retardant buildings being built and better fire education.
Fire equipment, however continues to skyrocket, and with the duplication of equipment,and intensive training needed, some fire and EMS services will need more and more funding. EMS runs however, are increasing. This is due to an aging population, and the ease of availability for the service and the abuse of the system. This increase in usage will continue to drive costs up for EMS services as they will need more training and sophisticated equipment to meet demand. This costs big money and citizens might start feeling the pinch in the future. I do believe that EMS services will feel the pinch first, and may be forced to consider joint efforts just because of cost.
Manpower will be a continuing issue for some. As equipment and demand for services increase, people might decide that the time involved to volunteer, or make this their profession, might not be worth it. Training for fire and EMS personnel is continuous and is becoming more sophisticated all the time. The time commitment is becoming more and more pronounced and may drive some people away from committing. Combine the time factor, and the inherent danger of the jobs, and it’s easy to see how manpower will be affected. Right now, some of our units are having problems with personnel, but most are okay at this time. This situation should be monitored closely in the future.
The ego part of the equation is just human nature. At some point, our group of chiefs, who seem to get along fairly well, may change in the future and different personalities may come into conflict with one another, causing problems with cooperation. Don’t misunderstand me, these people do something most of us would not do. That takes guts and a commitment most of us do not have. By human nature, that makes them feel a little special (and they are), but egos have brought down empires, so it is not a stretch to think it cannot happen to mutual aid agreements.
Darke County is doing things pretty good right now. We must continue to be vigilant and keep an eye on our situation. I would rather do something proactively than have to react to a crisis.
What can we do better and what do we look out for?
I have a few suggestions. First, I think we need a countywide training center. This center would allow all of our fire personnel to train in a local setting that mocks what they would likely find in Darke County. Now our firefighters have to travel to other counties to train properly, leaving them to long days away from families and added expense for them. We need to keep them close to home, and cut down their training and travel time so they can stay enthusiastic about their work.
This center should be complete with everything needed to maintain the high standards needed in the future. It will probably be very expensive, a rough estimate is $500,000. This money could come from grants, if available, fundraising efforts by the departments and private contributions. This center will have classrooms, burn buildings, and towers to make sure our personnel have the latest skills and technology to fight future fires.
It should be run by a retired firefighter, not a present chief or fireman. This will keep the egos out of the equation so there is no bickering about who uses what and when. The county, cities, towns, the EMA office, and all departments should work together on this project.
Secondly, we need to standardize our equipment. I do not mean that everyone needs to buy the same fire truck or ambulance, but placement of equipment should be the same on all pieces as to prevent confusion at the scene. On fire trucks, the number and placement of outlets, and a standardized hose coupling, among other things should be the same place on all vehicles. It would eliminate some confusion and cut costs. I am sure our chiefs in both services could figure out what is best for all concerned.
Third, we need to have a standard procedure for dispatch. One of the biggest complaints I heard was how dispatch is done. This seems to be a matter of preference and personalities. This is an easy fix, and now that we have a new 911 Coordinator, everyone needs to sit down and discuss what everyone wants and needs. This needs to be done in a spirit of cooperation and understanding between the dispatchers and the emergency and fire personnel.
Fourth, is the amount of equipment we have in Darke County. I think we need to look at what we need, not necessarily what we want. One suggestion, that I think is a good one, was to have each fire department equipped with four vehicles: two pumpers, one tanker and a grass vehicle. That seems reasonable to me and was suggested by a fire chief. This alone would be a tremendous cost savings as buying and equipping excess vehicles is very expensive. With mutual aid, we sometimes have more equipment than manpower to run it. I think the same could be true of EMS vehicles, but that’s harder to gauge. This is another topic the chiefs could address, but this seems to make sense. We have more fire equipment than the City of Dayton, is that really necessary?
The above are suggestions only. They are not set in stone, nor are they meant as a criticism of anyone or any department. I do have one other thought. When I was Greenville Township trustee, we discussed a joint district with the city. At that time, the city was not ready for that. I believe they may be now. If this is decided between the two entities, and I don’t even know if they have discussed it recently, this could be a model for how to do it for the whole county.
This would be a major undertaking for both parties, but it could be beneficial to both. I would urge them to take a look at it together. I am not a firefighter, or an EMS person, but as an elected official and taxpayer, it is my duty to explore ways to do things better. The biggest roadblock we face is going by the mantra, “Well, we have always done it this way”! To that I will answer, “Man used to think the earth was flat too, until someone decided to find out for sure.” As of now, we are doing things pretty good, but we must constantly be looking for ways to do things better. Hopefully, this will help. By the way, if you see one of our firefighters or EMS people, thank them. They truly deserve it.
Mike Stegall is a Darke County Commissioner . He can be reached at (937) 547-7300 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.