ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – A plan is in the works that could possibly merge three fire protection agencies into one. South Metro Fire Rescue, Littleton Fire Rescue and Cunningham Fire Protection District are discussing that possibility and giving it some serious thought.
“Right now we’re in the process of looking at all of the data and the analytics to determine what the larger organization would look like,” South Metro Fire Rescue Chief Bob Baker told CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann.
If the plan moves forward, the unified agency would serve nearly a half million residents across 285-square miles in Denver’s south suburbs. It would become one of the largest firefighting districts in the state, second behind the Denver Fire Department.
“The advantage of being part of a bigger agency is you can specialize in certain areas so you can get more efficient at it,” Cunningham Fire Protection District Chief Jerry Rhodes explained, adding not every agency has specialized services like hazardous materials or technical rescue teams.
Consolidating fire departments is nothing new to the Denver metro area. In 2015, the Denver Fire Department took over all of Englewood Fire Department’s operations after the City of Englewood announced it could no longer afford to fund its own department. Denver has also previously absorbed Glendale and Sheridan Fire Departments.
South Metro Fire Rescue has also merged with other agencies in the past, most recently with Parker Fire, and Chief Baker said it resulted in financial benefits for taxpayers.
“When Parker and South Metro combined, Parker’s mil levy was at about 14 mils,” he said. “When we finished our consolidation in January of last year, we dropped the Parker mill levy from that 14 mils down to almost 9.25. That’s a savings of millions of dollars, a savings we likely wouldn’t have realized if we would’ve stayed a separate agency.”
It’s not clear what the savings would be if the three agencies merge as the financial impact has not yet been worked out, Baker added.
“We believe that financially we’re more efficient together as a unified organization than we would be as three separate parochial entities,” Baker said. “So we’re hoping we’re able to pass some of that cost savings on to our citizens.”
There have been a number of plans pitched over the past several years to consolidate the three organizations.
“Since I’ve been in the fire service, really,” Baker said, “which is almost 33 years.”
Yet this time around, it seems more authentic to Chief Baker and Chief Rhodes.
“This is the first time, that’ I’m aware, that the fire chiefs and the union presidents from all three organizations are supportive of a unification,” Baker said. “That’s pretty unusual and I think it’s pretty precious.”
“There have been times when the unions have tried to make this happen in the past,” Rhodes added. “There have been times when the chiefs have tried to do it and there have been times when the elected officials have tried to do it. But this time, it’s being done together.”
If the agencies come together, there would be 29 operating stations with more than 600 staff. Chief Baker said there is no intention at this point to close any of the stations, but it’s possible more would be added in the future.
“Littleton is not an accredited agency yet and so to be under one umbrella, we’d have to provide the same standard of cover to all of the residents under the unified fire department,” Baker explained. “That would likely result in the addition of several fire stations in order to meet those response goals.”
Demand for emergency services is up and with it comes the need for more efficient service. Combining the agencies, the chiefs said, would ultimately improve safety, service and sustainability for firefighters as well as the public. Proving that is part of the ongoing process to develop a plan for the potential three-way merger.
“We want to make sure our citizens don’t get lost and they feel we’re very responsive,” Rhodes said.
“It’s really important for citizens to feel like that their fire department is an active and integral part of their community and they’re not just covered by just one large organization that doesn’t care that much about them individually,” Baker added. “I think that’s so engrained in all three of our cultures, that being embedded in the community is really critical.”
As the agencies work together to develop a plan for the potential unification, it has not yet been determined which of the three organizations would absorb the other two. The process is in its second phase, which Rhodes said is coming up with a “proof of performance.”
“If we can’t prove it to ourselves, we absolutely can’t prove it to the elected officials and they can’t prove it to the citizens,” Rhodes explained. “Then, we have to look at governance. Our elected officials need to look at what model we want to use. Then finances. If possible, you want to make sure everyone is equal – equal service, equal response and equal, wherever possible, citizens are paying the same.”
So, when could this possible merger happen?
“Not tomorrow, and we’ll give up on it a decade from now,” Rhodes said with a smile.
CBS4 reached out to Littleton Fire Rescue for comment, but received this response from their spokesperson.
“Since we are in the data collection stage, I don’t think there is anything specific to discuss at this time,” spokesperson Kelli Narde said in an email.
South Metro Fire Rescue provides emergency and prevention services to Douglas and Arapahoe Counties, including portions of Centennial, Greenwood Village, Parker and Castle Pines. With 17 stations and 397 members, the agency serves more than 203,000 residents.
Littleton Fire Rescue serves more residents – about 220,000 – in the City of Littleton, Centennial, the Littleton Fire Protection District and Highlands Ranch. That department has nine stations with 170 members.
The smaller of the three, Cunningham Fire Protection District, provides emergency services to unincorporated Arapahoe County and parts of Centennial. With only three stations and 76 members, CFPD serves just about 75,000 residents.
By comparison, the Denver Fire Department, the largest in Colorado, has 30 stations with 900 crew members and serves a population of approximately 650,000 residents.
Kelly Werthmann joined the CBS4 team in 2012 as the morning reporter, covering national stories like the Aurora Theater Shooting and devastating Colorado wildfires. She now anchors CBS4 Weekend Morning News and reports during the week. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @KellyCBS4.