Wheat Ridge may merge next
Fire agency consolidation in Colorado is driven by financial shortcomings
The push toward ever larger fire protection districts in Colorado could get a boost this year if a plan to merge Wheat Ridge’s nearly century-old firefighting force with the West Metro Fire Protection District goes forward.
The consolidation of firefighting agencies in Denver’s western suburbs would be the latest such union in the state and the continuation of a well-worn trend toward greater focus on regional, rather than municipal, fire protection services.
“The vast majority of these consolidations are being driven by the fire departments,” said Garry Briese, executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs. “They’re realizing that what departments are being asked to do they can’t afford to do it.”
Financial hurdles led to Englewood’s decision last year to contract out its fire and medical emergency services to Denver, following in the footsteps of Sheridan and Glendale. There are now only a handful of metro area cities — almost all with populations of 100,000 or more — that still have their own municipal fire departments, according to the Colorado Municipal League.
Elsewhere in Colorado, the Durango Fire Protection District in 2014 assumed the duties of three fire departments in the state’s southwest corner, while Colorado River Fire Rescue was created in 2012 from the merger of the Burning Mountains and Rifle fire protection districts.
“What they’ve found over time is that a more effective and more cost-efficient service comes from doing it on a larger scale,” Briese said.
Proponents of consolidation say it leads to more operational efficiencies, less duplication and greater economies of scale. Fleets can be scaled back, communication systems streamlined and personnel deployed more easily to where they are needed.
“What you see in the long term (with consolidation) is cost avoidance,” said Ken Watkins, president of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs and the fire chief in Grand Junction.
But with consolidation comes aggravation, especially from those who view their local fire department as a civic treasure and symbol of
public service in its purest form.
Englewood City Manager Eric Keck came face to face with angry residents and firefighters who resisted the idea of disbanding the 108-year-old institution as a matter of civic pride.
“The number of complaints died down in late 2015, but I am certain that there are residents that are still unhappy about the move,” Keck said last week. “However, the move to Denver Fire helped the city to also stave off a fiscal dilemma that would have necessitated some form of service level cuts.”
Keck said the new arrangement, for which Englewood pays Denver $5.4 million a year, has gone “extremely well” since Englewood fire sounded its final tone on May 31. More effective water rescues, better hazardous materials response and more judicious vehicle dispatching to a scene are just some of the improvements Keck has noted.
He told city leaders last year that maintaining a stand-alone Englewood force would cost $18.6 million, largely due to a long list of aging equipment, vehicles and stations that needed replacing.
Bob Olme, chief of the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District, said despite getting voter approval for a mill levy increase in 2014, he would have to contemplate seeking another injection of funding by 2020 to remain financially stable.
Transitioning the 36-person force from a mostly volunteer organization to career staff has accounted for the bulk of the cost increases, the chief said.
Consultants from Emergency Services Consulting International, in a 256-page report issued in late 2015, recommended a merger “because of the economies of scale associated with planning and implementing a response system over a large area.”
Merging with West Metro, with 250,000 people under its protective umbrella, wouldn’t cost the 30,000 people in Wheat Ridge’s coverage area more in taxes as both agencies have essentially the same mill levy.
“It’s one of those rare occasions where the stars aligned and you can provide greater depth of service at no higher cost,” Olme said. “If I can get expansion of services at no additional cost, I think it’s the responsibility we have as administrators to do it.”
But the chief is mindful that longtime residents may resist losing the Wheat Ridge moniker on the district’s trucks and three stations. Even though the agency is not a municipal fire department in the traditional sense — it also serves Mountain View and Edgewater and not even all of Wheat Ridge — it has been around in some form since 1926.
It was, in fact, firefighters with the Wheat Ridge Fire Department who contributed funds toward the city’s 1969 incorporation election.
“Having a fire department with the same name as the community can be very important,” Olme said. “We’re sensitive to that.”
The question of public buy-in is so sensitive that the boards for Wheat Ridge and West Metro are planning to put the question of a merger to a vote of the people, even though they don’t have to.
“We want people to be comfortable and satisfied that it is the right decision,” Olme said.
The election would likely be this fall.
Don Lombardi, West Metro’s chief, said his agency would honor the local community by absorbing most of the firefighters from the Wheat Ridge Fire Protection District once the merger is complete.
“We do understand the heritage of each district,” he said. “Those things are not lost on us.”
Engineer Anthony DiTullio, right, and firefighter Wesley Percefull wash a fire engine. Wheat Ridge recently commissioned an analysis looking into whether the department should merge with West Metro.
Engineer Anthony DiTullio washes a fire engine at the Wheat Ridge Fire Department.