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Fire District staff endorses merger

After carefully reviewing a 250-page report on the feasibility of combining forces with two nearby neighbors, staff leaders at South Kitsap Fire and Rescue seem to agree that such a merger would not only be possible, but beneficial.

“It took us 7.5 hours to go over this study chapter by chapter, but it was well worth it,” said SKFR Chief Wayne Senter, referring to the Kitsap Cooperative Services Feasibility Study prepared by Emergency Services Consulting inc. (ESCi) for his district, Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue and the Bremerton Fire Department.

While the study suggested there could be benefits to the three organizations not officially “merging” into one organization yet agreeing to cooperatively deliver services, ESCi ultimately recommended a full integration as a “regional fire authority” as the preferred option.

According to the report, the three departments are often duplicating each other’s efforts, particularly in administrative and support services, and a “full legal integration (into) a single fire agency,” would result in an overall savings to each agency as it “eliminates redundancies while improving the overall level of service.”

However, at the fourth and final study meeting Thursday night, Senter stressed that his district was not considering an integration merely as a cost-saving measure.

“This is not about saving money,” he said. “This is about reallocating funds and resources to provide better services to our citizens more efficiently.”

One oft-cited cause of inefficiency that would be cured by the departments combining is the location of the most visited care center — Harrison Hospital in Bremerton.

Senter and Battalion Chiefs Mike Wernet and Eric Quitsland all pointed to the fact that SKFR units are frequently within the territories of Central Kitsap and Bremerton while returning from transporting a patient to Harrison. This affects service, they said, because while in the other districts, they might be the closest unit available to respond to a call, but often do not because the call is in another’s territory.

And although SKFR and Bremerton have successfully ignored some of their boundaries and improved service with their months-old “Drop Borders Now” agreement, Senter and his staff leaders agreed that a full integration of the three agencies would be vastly superior to merely agreeing to cooperate.

“It is impossible to serve two masters,” Senter said.

Battalion Chief Wernet agreed.

“With multiple leaders you have multiple directions,” Wernet said, explaining that he certainly expected there to be “speed bumps” in the process of integrating, but that overall it will be in the best interest of the residents the districts serve.

“And if we determine it will bad for the citizens, then we’re packing up our tent and going home,” Senter said.

Also agreeing with the study’s recommendation were Tim Salters and George Roller, members of the South Kitsap Professional Firefighters Union, Local 2876, and Scott Hartley, a battalion chief with the SKFR volunteer association.

“I am excited about the concept,” Hartley said. “I think we will be a lot stronger together.”

Along with proving to be bad for his district’s citizens, Senter identified two more “deal breakers” that he and his staff would not compromise on — the volunteers and their program must be maintained, and everyone’s job must be safe. If positions are to be eliminated, they will only be so following the retirement or realignment of the current employee, he said.

Now that the study’s findings received a recommendation from his staff, Senter said the next step is to seek approval from the district’s board of commissioners, who will be considering the issue at its next meeting on August 20.

At that meeting, Senter said the commissioners will only be deciding whether to “move forward” with the discussions, and will not be voting on whether or not to merge with the other districts.

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