Ken Erickson, who currently serves as the chief for the fire departments in both Laconia and Belmont, is shown at left while he manages the response to a large-scale incident in 2012. At center is Jim Hayes, who was chief coordinator for Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association. (Alan MacRae/file photo)
Laconia fire chief advocates for sharing services among towns
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
Proponents of regionalization say that combining the resources of certain departments would provide better service and lead to savings through negotiated pricing and bulk purchases.
Despite those advantages, concerns about the loss of control and local identity, as well as initially high expenditures, have combined to stall most efforts at combining services in New Hampshire.
Belmont’s decision to contract with the city of Laconia for the services of its fire chief was a step toward regionalization, but Chief Kenneth Erickson said it’s not true regionalization.
“This is a step toward consolidating services on an administrative level,” Erickson said. “Regionalization would create a department out of three or four or five or six departments.”
What the current contract does, he said, is to save money for Belmont and provide additional revenue to Laconia.
“Belmont gets a fire chief and an assistant fire chief for less than the cost of a full-time fire chief, for about $88,000. A stand-alone fire chief would probably be $150,000, when you add in the various costs, such as health insurance and retirement.
“The city of Laconia gains revenue by negotiating a contract with Belmont.”
The first step
Erickson said he has preached regionalization for his entire career. When Belmont’s fire chief left for a job in Massachusetts two years ago, Erickson approached Laconia’s city manager with the idea of sharing services. Having received a go-ahead there, he went to Belmont’s town administrator, who brought the proposal to the Belmont Board of Selectmen.
“We didn’t bring it to the City Council until we knew the Belmont selectmen were interested,” Erickson said. “It was all done relatively quickly.”
Belmont Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin said the town was looking for a new fire chief when Laconia approached with the idea of sharing administrative fire services.
“The board reviewed it and decided it was in our best interest to consider it, so we moved forward,” she said. “We spent a fair amount of time over six or seven weeks discussing the details of how we anticipated it was going to work.”
Looking back now, Beaudin said, “From my perspective, it seems to be working quite well.”
Ruth Mooney, chairman of the Belmont Board of Selectmen, agrees.
“As far as I’m concerned, this has been phenomenal,” she said. “It’s been a learning process, and, like anything else, you’ll have bumps in the road, but it’s working.”
She said their only real concern was flexibility in case it did not work out.
“I was adamant that there was a 30-day notice of termination if either party comes to a decision that it’s not working,” Mooney said. “I wanted it so if we wanted to part ways, we wouldn’t have to wait for a year.”
She said Belmont could not afford to pay a huge salary, and it is not easy to find someone willing to take the position of fire chief. “So you have to look at the whole thing, and we really felt it was something worth trying. If you don’t try, you don’t know.”
“For me,” Erickson said, “the real challenges were getting people within the department to understand they didn’t need a fire chief in the building five days a week.”
He said Manchester has one chief for nine fire stations, and he equated adding Belmont to his duties as being similar to adding another fire station. He said a fire chief’s duties lie in long-term planning, managing a budget, and dealing with the politics of the job. That work can be done anywhere, he said.
“When I first took over, there was that whole feeling among some firefighters – ‘Where’s the chief?’ Just pick up the phone and call,” he said.
As for the residents of Belmont, their concern is having a quick, professional response, Erickson said.
“There was no huge response from the community,” he said. “They don’t care as long as the fire department shows up when they call them. It went really smooth.”
He attends selectmen’s meetings, staff meetings when asked, and budget meetings when required, “no different from what the other fire chief did,” Erickson said.
“One of the things I pointed out is, as the chief of Laconia, if there was a serious call in Belmont, I was already going anyway. It wouldn’t increase my emergency workload, so to speak.”
A call to Mosquito Bridge on Route 3 would see Laconia firefighters arriving ahead of those from Belmont because of the clear route they have to that location, Erickson said. The Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association has established a protocol for automatic responses by the closest departments.
Mooney cited the mutual aid system as being very important to the smaller towns, allowing them to work together in a regional manner.
As to full regionalization, Mooney said she would need to see the plan.
“You have to be open to anything,” she said. “It doesn’t cost anything to sit down and listen with an open mind. But before you can consider regionalization, somebody has to have a good plan put together.”
New England has a tradition of small municipal and independent fire departments, many of them created around population centers and industries that no longer exist. Elsewhere in the country, however, those services often are provided by county government.
Erickson has looked at regionalization of the fire departments in Belknap County and sees it as a way to improve services. He said that, over the long run, it can save money, but those looking at regionalization strictly as a way to save money will be disappointed.
“Any savings from getting rid of all but one fire chief should go to putting people on the floor to provide better service,” Erickson said. “You would still need to have deputy chiefs in charge of training, facilities and maintenance, and fire prevention.”
Some communities rely on volunteers and part-time workers but, under regionalization, they would gain full-time professionals, he said. There would be less duplication of resources, which could lead to cost savings, but the real savings come in when it is time for major purchases. The cost of a new ladder truck would be spread throughout the county, he said, making it much more affordable.
Strategic placement of the fire stations could provide six- to eight-minute response times to any emergency, Erickson said.
“We could eliminate borders with a regional emergency response,” he said.
One of the problems that arises in such a conversation, Erickson said, is the sense that a town is giving up control or providing resources for another town.
“We don’t want to spend our money to help another town,” is how he describes that sentiment.
If a county fire department were to purchase three tankers, there might be resistance to the locations those were chosen to go, he said. Everyone wants the newest piece of equipment.
A basic problem is equalizing each community’s contribution to the hypothetical regional department.
Erickson did a calculation using each town’s percentage of the total county population, the number of calls, net assessed valuation, and departmental budget to figure out what the budgetary impact would be using those numbers. Under his formula, Barnstead, Belmont, Gilford, Gilmanton, Laconia and Tilton-Northfield would see cost reductions, but communities such as Alton would see significant enough increases to guarantee they would not want to participate.
What a town brings to the table also varies greatly from town to town. Some have full-time crews, others volunteers. The amount and age of equipment varies greatly. While regionalization would even out those discrepancies, the territorial concerns — “it’s mine” — are tough to overcome, Erickson admits.
The fire chiefs have done as much as they can to share resources, he said, but equipment purchases and training remain largely local choices.
Something that would make sense immediately, Erickson maintains, is regionalizing equipment maintenance. Building a facility for equipment repair could place a trained staff at the ready to make repairs for whatever piece of equipment needs work done.
“That kind of facility doesn’t need to be strategically located,” Erickson said.
If a countywide fire department doesn’t make sense, Erickson suggested that smaller departments could be created and still lead to cost savings through bulk purchases. He said between all the towns, they probably replace 40,000 feet of hose, and being able to purchase such a large quantity could provide bargaining power.
Individual departments currently obtain better pricing by agreeing to replace a given number coats and helmets per year on a rotating basis. That can be compounded with regional purchasing, he said.
Still, he sees advantages in having a county-operated fire department. He said eliminating five fire chiefs could free up money to hire nine full-time firefighters, beefing up the number of those on duty to answer calls.
The same sorts of advantages could be realized with police departments, highway departments, and other services, he believes.
“But I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime,” he said.