CRESTVIEW — Eight independent fire departments — Almarante, Blackman, Baker, Dorcas, Holt and North Okaloosa Fire Districts — serve North Okaloosa County's unincorporated communities.
But some officials say consolidating districts could provide efficiencies and savings for north county taxpayers.
'IT MAKES SENSE'
“For many, many different reasons, it makes sense,” Okaloosa County Commissioner Wayne Harris, a north county representative, said. “You cross-utilize resources. You can buy in bulk and you get a better deal.”
“The economy comes in mass purchasing of gear, trucks and insurance,” NOFD Chief Ed Cutler said. “Insurance would be a tremendous savings."
“Our local fire districts struggle with compliance costs mandated by the state legislature,” said Commissioner Nathan Boyles, who also represents North Okaloosa. “The annual audit alone can cost a small district $6,000 to $12,000, reducing scarce funds needed for operations.”
“Consolidation could reduce total overhead costs and increase operational funds without raising taxes.”
FIRE CHIEFS' POSITION
Some fire chiefs like the idea of consolidation.
“A north-end fire department would be awesome,” Dorcas Fire District Chief John Polinsky said. “We could put the people where they’d need to be and have them a few miles down the road.”
Okaloosa County Emergency Services Director Alvin Henderson, a former volunteer firefighter and son of a volunteer firefighter, said he’d be glad to facilitate a conversation with north county chiefs and district boards.
“I’m sure if they would be interested in investigating that structure and doing due diligence on pros and cons to provide the Board of County Commissioners, I’d be more than happy to work with them,” he said.
Not all north county districts support consolidation as enthusiastically.
“It has its benefits, but it has some disadvantages too," Almarante Fire District Chief Charles Carroll said. "Before I would rally around the flagpole, I would certainly want to do a lot more research about it.”
'IT WOULD WORK WONDERS'
In some ways, north county fire companies are already linked together. A countywide 9-1-1 emergency system summons the relevant fire department. With mutual aid agreements, firefighters from one district often help colleagues in a neighboring district. And firefighters occasionally train together.
Consolidation supporters say formalizing training, purchasing and administration into a unified fire district has many advantages.
“No single fire district has enough because of budgets,” Cutler said. “That’s why we rely on mutual and automatic aid.”
“We have some different equipment in each of the districts,” Harris said. “If you put them together, you would have a lot of great resources.”
“It would work out a lot better and save the taxpayers some money,” Polinsky said. “It would work wonders.”
A STATE MATTER
Despite the advantages, the county is not considering creating a unified fire department, both north Okaloosa commissioners said.
“This is important: Okaloosa County is not interested in getting into the fire protection business,” Boyles said.
“That would add hundreds of employees to the county payroll,” Harris said. “It would open up all kinds of issues.”
Besides, Harris said, “It would have to be legislatively mandated. The county has no control of fire districts. That comes out of Tallahassee. You have to sell it to the state, as well as the individual districts.”
There is also a matter of hometown pride.
“Consolidation can be a sensitive issue,” Boyles said. “Communities in my district take pride in their volunteer departments.”
There currently is no effort to consolidate firefighting resources, but Henderson said if firefighters and residents wanted to explore the potential, his office would help — and ensure the initiative preserves each district’s identity.
“A full merger or consolidation, there’s many ways to structure it,” he said. “Part of that due process is to really analyze what they’re currently doing and then look at ways they could be more efficient and, in some cases, advance the services they can provide.”
Boyles said if the discussion goes forward, residents should be involved.
“Our fire districts do a good job with the limited resources available to them," he said. "Consolidation is an issue that the individual districts and the communities they represent must find consensus on.”
Cutler said he understands the importance of preserving each district's identity, but ultimately, the mission is protection.
“It’s not about your department or my department," Cutler said. "It’s about taking care of the residents of the community.”