County to study fire departments

Jan. 18, 2013 @ 09:29 PM

County officials are set to pay a consultant $68,300 to look at Durham’s volunteer fire departments and see if there’s a way they can do business more efficiently.
The move comes after a couple years worth of prodding from County Manager Mike Ruffin, who’s skeptical that residents in unincorporated Durham are receiving an even level of service from the seven volunteer departments that cover it.
Some departments are better financed than others, and “I would like to see uniform fire service across the county,” Ruffin said in May.
The manager convinced volunteer-department chiefs to back a study, and this week the effort received a go-ahead vote from County Commissioners.
Administrators will pay a Charlotte-based consultant, Steve Allan, to study the system and see “if realistic, alternative methods exist to organize and provide fire services with increased effectiveness, coordination, cost efficiencies, economies of scale and a more consistent level of service countywide.”
Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley said Allan is free to consider anything up to and including a consolidation of fire districts.
“It’s really wide open,” Worsley said. “[Ruffin] said we’ll go into this with open minds and see what the study says.”
Allan has worked in the area before, recently completing a study of emergency medical services in neighboring Orange County.
Orange officials were worried about lagging response times, and Allan wound up offering a package of recommendations that asks their government to spend an additional $15.6 million over 10 years on operations and capital improvements.
Ruffin met early on with volunteer-department chiefs and convinced them to support conducting a study. They also backed the choice of Allan, who Worsley said “doesn’t come in with any preconceived notions” about Durham’s fire service.
“He will be meeting with chiefs and their [department] boards to learn what their business is, and then begin to form recommendations,” Worsley said.
The study will address only the volunteer departments. The city’s Fire Department won’t figure into it, save for some discussions about how it and the volunteer departments work together.
Ruffin “has said we need to look at our delivery of service,” Worsley said. “The city may be a next step, but we need to look at our own first.”
A change to the service boundaries between the city Fire Department and the volunteer departments also “hasn’t been a consideration,” Worsley said.
The study’ six-month timeframe means it’s unlikely to have much influence on Ruffin’s 2013-14 budget request.
Meanwhile, city officials are moving along in their search for a replacement for former Fire Chief Bruce Pagan.
City Manager Tom Bonfield said he and his staff have narrowed the field to five candidates. One is an in-house applicant.