October 31, 2013 | Vol. 117 -- No. 28

Fire districts look to formalize cooperation

West Plains agencies working to transform current training relationship into stronger resource sharing

Spokane County Fire District 10, the Airway Heights Fire Department and the Medical Lake Fire Department are looking to perform a cooperative services assessment to find better ways of working together.

The three agencies are hoping to consolidate their resources, continuing to build on an already strong relationship that has been forged over the last couple of years. Currently all three fire departments train new recruits together and help with special events. They also have an automatic aid agreement, which means if Airway Heights is already deployed throughout the city and unable to respond to an incident, Fire District 10 trucks could take care of things.

“If we have a major incident, it’s very likely today that we’ll get help from Airway Heights or Medical Lake or others, Fire District 3 and 5 have an auto aid agreement with us as well,” Spokane County Fire District 3 Assistant Chief Robert Ladd said. “We’re working regionally today. We just want to do it better.”

Training together not only provides the same set of instructions to volunteer recruits in each department, but it helps them become familiar with practices and equipment across the board. When responding to an incident, the different departments can now operate each other’s equipment and be familiar with their respective operating procedures. That way, the best possible response is assured to residents of the West Plains instead of taking time to learn them on the spot.

“That’s going to do nothing but make us more efficient on an emergency scene,” Ladd said. “We are continually looking for ways to work better regionally as it is.”

Fire District 10 is serving as the lead agency in the bidding process to find a contractor who will create a services assessment report. Since each jurisdiction has different bidding policies, the county took the lead role

The main question facing the three fire departments is finding where they can improve services, what specifically needs to be left independent and what potential there is in the future for cooperation beyond what happens today.

“This assessment could come back with things that we could immediately do at no cost or no need to go to the taxpayers for approval. We hope we can find things like that, quick and easy things that we may have missed,” Ladd said.

One area Ladd says the departments could have a great impact is in education. Airway Heights has Sunset Elementary in its jurisdiction while Medical Lake has numerous schools to consider in its coverage area. Fire District 10, however, doesn’t have any public schools to visit and spread fire safety awareness.

“All of our kids go to other fire jurisdictions to go to school,” he said. “So for us, it’s difficult to reach the majority of kids in our jurisdiction.”

Ladd stressed that formalizing the departments’ cooperation efforts wasn’t an attempt to increase costs to taxpayers.

“Our citizens expect us to be as fiscally conservative as we can and still provide good services,” he said.

Specifically, that includes not growing staff in Fire District 10. Instead, formalizing the departments’ connections would allow the department to decentralize and spread out throughout the West Plains.

“The one thing we’re looking for is to not grow our staff,” he said.

Currently, Fire District 10 is headquartered in Airway Heights, five minutes away from the Airway Heights Fire Department’s office. Combined, the three agencies have nearly 100 square miles of territory to cover. Having greater numbers of fire crews stationed throughout the West Plains would mean better response times to incidents outside of Airway Heights.

Fire District 10 has four other stations to the north, west and east of the city.

Earlier this year, the three agencies presented their plan to city councils in Medical Lake and Airway Heights, in addition to the county’s fire board, to gain a better sense of direction. Their response was universally encouraging.

“We were directed to explore what else could be done,” Ladd said.

Other fire authorities have been created in Washington state, but can be found more on the west side than east of the Cascades. Specifically, Valley Regional Fire Authority, which was formed in 2007, combined resources from Auburn and Pacific fire departments. It provides fire assistance to more than 80,000 residents in 37 square miles. Funding for that specific fire authority comes from property taxes and a fire benefit service charge.

Ladd expects the contractor’s work to be completed within six months, depending on the amount of potential cooperation there is between agencies. No costs will be incurred until a contract is awarded for the services assessment.

For Ladd, the cooperation only strengthens each department’s response to an emergency incident.

“There are no agencies in Spokane County where you can do it alone,” he said.

James Eik can be reached at james@cheneyfreepress.com.

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