Rethinking Fire & EMS Services

After reading the Post-Dispatch’s op-ed pieces advocating the overall restructure of our local government, I joined forces with the McNary's and offer our plan on how fire and emergency services would be reorganized under a unification plan with nine boroughs in a combined local government.

Thinking back to the events in Ferguson in August 2014, all will agree that we are an interconnected community, and what happens in one jurisdiction affects us all and demonstrates the integrated nature of our local government services. We take great pride in our community-based firefighters who support our distinctive neighborhoods. But we also work, shop and enjoy our larger community every day. Our families rely upon the fire and ambulance services provided throughout the metro area, not just in the neighborhood where we reside. We would all benefit by having consistent, reliable fire and ambulance service across our region.

The Ferguson Municipal Fire department is one of 20 in our city-county region. In addition, we have 23 independent fire districts. All totaled, we spend about $335 million each year on fire service, which comprises 15 percent of the total annual spending on local government. St. Louis residents spend $250 per capita, which is significantly more than is expended by the residents of Indianapolis, Louisville and our own neighboring counties.

What do we get for this investment? First and foremost we get 2,250 dedicated firefighters and staff to protect our communities. But some things we don’t get are adequate hazardous materials crews or heavy rescue teams. That’s not because our firefighters are indifferent to these needs; it is because we’ve spread our resources too thin by allocating funds among 43 organizations. Some departments have so few firefighters that these small units can’t effectively establish special services. Often they can’t even effectively fight a house fire without calling upon the support of their neighboring fire department.

Therein lies a second problem. Each department and district has a unique set of funding options and management obstacles. The fact that these departments have different equipment, staffing, training, pay and operating procedures makes the coordination of crews from different firehouses impossible to safely and efficiently integrate on a fire scene. In short, while we have great firefighters, we don’t have a great fire service system because we are fragmented with 43 silos of fire service providers.

What if we had nine boroughs, with nine rather than 43 fire departments? Each borough would have its own fire chief as well as a cadre of firefighters, engineers and EMS technicians. The nine chiefs, all professionals in the fire service, would sit on a Fire and EMS Board, providing standardized and shared fire service training and equipment standards, dispatching and crisis response procedures, heavy rescue, hazardous material and other central services. Recruitment and pay scales would be under the control of the civil service commission, which would establish and adjust standard pay grades and be in charge of assembling a pool of qualified fire and EMS recruits. Each borough fire chief would draw from this pool of screened applicants in filling vacancies and be bound by the pay schedule, with hiring decisions, promotions, discipline and terminations left to his/her discretion.

The citizens’ advisory commission would provide for citizen input and help investigate grievances. The commission would have the authority to review improper conduct and policy and escalate valid complaints and suggestions to the appropriate borough fire chief for action.

Annual budgets would be determined by interaction between the Fire and EMS Board and the central government administration with the annual proposed appropriations to be approved by the Council of Mayors. By allotting the available funds to the region’s highest priorities, the Fire and EMS Board would then implement its strategy for improving the fire service so that the system will be as good as our firefighters.

Your thoughts are welcome.