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Study supports combined Stevens County fire services

The Fire Chiefs from Morris, Hancock, Chokio and Donnelly support combining fire services in Stevens County. From left to right, Bruce Quackenbush (Chokio), Mark Hollerman (Hancock), Doug Storck (Morris), Minnesota State Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl, and Brad Searle (Donnelly). Photo Credit: Randy Willis, Stevens County Sheriff.

There are no major issues that would prohibit the volunteer fire departments in Morris, Hancock, Chokio and Donnelly from combining into a single, unified department - if that's what those involved decided to do.

That was the takeaway message from consulting firm Emergency Services Consulting International on Monday night after a presentation to almost 80 elected officials, community members and volunteer firefighters about the feasibility of combining fire services in Stevens County.

"Like it or not, your four fire departments are already pretty much married," said Phil Kouwe, project manager with ESCI. "It may have been sort of a shotgun wedding, but because of manpower issues you all need to work together. 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."

ECSI began collecting information about fire and emergency services in Stevens County in May 2011, funded by a grant from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The final report looks at each department separately to assess strengths and weaknesses, then find common issues that could be addressed as a group, said Kouwe.

After finishing their assessment, "[ECSI] found nothing that we could see that would prohibit these four fire departments from combining ... if that's what they wanted to do," Kouwe said. Kouwe added that in more than half of the studies ESCI has conducted, they've recommended against consolidation because the study revealed some concerns.

In this particular case, combining departments would likely not result in major cost savings - the cost for services in all the departments is well below both the state and national average cost.

"You're getting an incredible bargain," said Kouwe. "We're not here to tell you that you're looking at cutting that already incredibly low cost of fire protection."

Instead, combining departments could provide other functional and operational advantages including more coordinated purchases for equipment; unified training, procedures and administration; and more effective recruitment for members and leadership.

However, the path to a unified department would not be without challenges, despite the strong support for that plan from the four fire chiefs.

"We do stand together and we do believe in consolidation," said Morris Fire Chief Storck, speaking on behalf of the other volunteer fire chiefs (Mark Holleman in Hancock, Bruce Quackenbush in Chokio and Brad Searle in Donnelly). "If it's not now, so be it, but it's going to happen sometime."

Elected officials would need to decide what sort of legal agreement to enter into as a combined department; address questions of governance, finances, operations and support services; and develop a strategic plan to put the pieces in place.

Still, all those who spoke at the meeting thought that the foundation was set to begin serious conversations about combining the departments or looking more closely into shared services, even if a formal combination did not happen.

"You're ahead of the game in terms of the communications and coordination that's needed to make this project - wherever it goes - successful," said Minnesota State Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl, adding that the cooperation he saw between the four fire chiefs is uncommon in other parts of the state.

"We just ask you not to leave here tonight and let this idea die," Storck concluded. "Let's leave here with some type of plan. The leaders of the fire departments can't make changes ourselves, so we asked our city and county leaders to take a good look at this and help us move forward."