Consultants favor change to county fire service

Dec. 10, 2013 @ 09:03 PM

A long-awaited study urges Durham County officials to tighten their oversight of Durham’s five “volunteer” fire departments, consider merging some and think about handing over the coverage responsibilities of others to the city.
The report has circulated among elected officials and the leaders of the volunteer departments, County Manager Mike Ruffin said. But a formal presentation to the County Commissioners won’t happen until the late winter or early spring.
“There’s a lot more questions now than answers,” Ruffin said, adding that four different work groups in county government are now “combing through” the study’s recommendations and that some may eventually fail to gain support.
Administrators initiated the study in fiscal 2012-13 at Ruffin’s behest. The manager at the time said he’d like to see “a uniform fire service across the county.”
The resulting document examines the Bahama, Bethesda, Lebanon, Parkwood and Redwood departments, which all told receive about $6.1 million in tax money from the county to serve areas outside the city.
Bahama and Lebanon serve the northern areas of the county, while Parkwood and Bethesda cover the southern suburbs and Research Triangle Park. Redwood covers a swath of northeastern Durham along the Interstate 85 corridor and Falls Lake.
Most of the departments nowadays are volunteer in name only. Collectively, about 62 percent of their 299 firefighters are paid for their work. Many of the paid firefighters are moonlighting city of Durham employees.
Only Bahama, with 26 paid staffers on a 67-person roster, remains majority volunteer.
All save Bethesda are run by independent nonprofits. County officials took over Bethesda earlier this year after its former nonprofit leadership voted to dissolve.
On the oversight front, the Charlotte-based consultants the county hired for the study identified numerous problems.
For example, required annual audits of the departments’ books usually reach the county months after they’d be of use in setting budgets. When consultants looked earlier this year, they found that the most recent audit of the Bahama department the county had received dated from 2010.
The county to date also hasn’t prodded the departments to combine their equipment and material purchasing, despite the potential savings inherent in joint buying.
Operations-wise, the departments have response-time problems and aging vehicle fleets.
In 20120, four of the five couldn’t break the 20 percent mark when it came to responding to a call within four minutes, and they varied significantly in terms of their ability to respond within eight minutes.
The consultants chose the four- and eight-minute benchmarks because those are critical in cardiac and structure-fire cases, respectively.
Bethesda – responsible for a portion of southeast Durham including RTP – was the best performer. It got to about 47 percent of its calls in four minutes and about 91 percent in eight minutes.
On the other end of the scale, Bahama hit the four-minute mark a bit less than 17 percent of the time and the eight-minute mark about 57 percent of the time. It covers the northernmost reaches of Durham County, a spread-out area with a scanty road network.
Differences among the departments likely contribute to disparities in the cost of homeowners insurance.
Based on the insurance ratings of the different fire districts, people on the rural fringes of the county perhaps pay about a third more a year for a policy than people in the suburbs.
And staffing-wise, all of the departments would be “hard pressed” on any given day to marshal the personnel needed to fight a house fire but for mutual-aid agreements with each other and the city Fire Department, the consultants said.
Going forward, the consultants advise the county to tighten its contracts with the fire departments, to insert clearer performance standards and financial-reporting requirements.
They also recommend giving the county’s Emergency Management Department more say over the departments’ business, and the creation of a joint capital-improvement plan to govern major equipment purchases and building construction.
As for consolidation, the consultants advise considering a merger of the three northern-tier departments, Bahama, Lebanon and Redwood. In the south, they suggest merging Bethesda and Parkwood and someday turning those districts over to the city.
They added that a city takeover there seems inevitable given land-use planning that assumes the southern tier will continue to urbanize.
The study is reaching officials in the closing stages of Ruffin’s tenure as county manager. He is retiring on Jan. 31.
Ruffin said to ensure continuity, Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley has been spearheading the county’s end of the initiative, in cooperation with the five chiefs. He added that the county is already working on changes to its contracts with the volunteer departments
“There will be some things [from the study] we obviously will be ready to roll in quickly,” he said, counting the contract changes among them. “Some things will have to be phased, and there may be things we tell the board just won’t work.”
Ruffin said the public shouldn’t see the county’s past oversight of the departments as slack because it’s approached the fire service “the way most counties have been doing it.”
The volunteer departments have roots as independent organizations and only since the 1960s developed closer relationships with local government, he said.
“But it’s time to change the way we do business,” Ruffin said. “The whole purpose of study was to take a hard look at ourselves and come up with something that would be more efficient.”
Especially on the oversight front, “there’s a great deal of room for improvement” Commission Ellen Reckhow said, adding that she will ask Ruffin’s successor to make follow-up on the study “a priority.”