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Stevens County fire departments look to work together better

MORRIS – Over the last six months fire chiefs in Morris, Donnelly, Hancock and Chokio have been formalizing a more coordinated relationship to improve fire service across Stevens County.

They presented their work so far and asked for feedback at a meeting Wednesday in Morris with local officials, firemen and community members.

Although the Morris, Hancock, Donnelly and Chokio fire departments have been talking about cooperating better for more than 10 years, the conversation got a boost in 2011 thanks to a grant from the Minnesota State Fire Marshal.

The grant was used to hire a consulting firm – Emergency Services Consulting International – to look at feasibility and challenges for creating a unified department.

Representatives from ECSI presented the report to the public in October 2011 and, at the time, said there would be no major issues if the four departments did want to combine.

Like it or not, the departments were already basically married, said Phil Kouwe, project manager with ESCI, during the presentation.

“It may have been sort of a shotgun wedding, but because of manpower issues you all need to work together,” he said. “You all rely on each other when there's a major incident, so the more effective and efficient you can make that marriage, the better off you're going to be.”

After the study, Chokio Fire Chief Bruce Quackenbush and Donnelly Fire Chief Brad Searle along with new chiefs Dave Dybdal in Morris and Kyle Rose in Hancock, continued to meet monthly to coordinate services, training plans, policies and guidelines.

The four departments received another grant at the beginning of 2012 that has been used to update the paperwork and documentation that is the “backbone” of how the departments will work together, said Quackenbush.

Today, the four departments have a common training calendar which allows them to offer fewer classes, increase the standard of training and give firemen in different departments the chance to work together.

“By spreading that around, the firemen from each community could work a little more together so when we do have these large incidents … and feel more comfortable with each other and things will go better for everybody,” said Quackenbush.

They have also looked at how to better standardize equipment so that firemen can feel more comfortable with other equipment when called to help out and to better coordinate maintenance visits.

More closely aligning the four departments may also be an advantage when it comes to requesting grants for major equipment purchases – state and federal organizations look more favorably on requests across multiple agencies than for single, small town fire departments.

The next step in the process is to finalize a new system for requesting and responding to mutual aid calls. Under a “box alarm system,” dispatchers will be able to automatically be able to send out a team from a neighboring fire department based on the type and severity of the incident, rather than waiting for the fire chief on scene to make a request.

While county residents probably won't see any changes with the new system – the first department called when a fire happens in the Morris fire district will be the Morris Fire Department – the chiefs hope it will speed up response time to major incidents.

“It's no different that what we're doing now,” said Searle. “The only thing is that it structures it all so now if I have a fire in Donnelly, I know what rigs are going to come for a structure fire.”