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SKFR chief says work just beginning as merger study approved

Now that the Bremerton City Council has approved further study of a merger between South Kitsap Fire and Rescue and the Bremerton Fire Department, SKFR Chief Wayne Senter said the real work begins.

“We are going to roll our sleeves up and go about getting it done,” Senter said at the last meeting of SKFR’s Board of Commissioners Feb. 25.

The vote advances a nearly 4-year-old effort to consolidate three local fire districts into one regional fire authority. After talks between Bremerton, South Kitsap and Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue fell apart last year, the fire districts are now trying a phased approach, with Bremerton choosing who it will merge with first.

If the study indicates that a merger with South Kitsap would make financial sense for both districts and provide equal or better service to residents, the City Council would have to re-establish a regional fire authority planning committee.

The committee would develop a work plan detailing how the merged fire districts would operate, which would then have to be approved by SKFR and Bremerton before going to voters.

Senter said the biggest and most time-consuming pieces of both fire organization’s budgets are the collective bargaining agreements they reach with their staff’s unions.

“These are the lengthiest pieces, and bringing the two together will be even tougher,” he said. “And making sure that both of them together don’t end up costing more, rather than less.”

The timeline for the study is six months, and Senter said “that six months is going to go by quick.” However, he said a lot of the territory has been covered in previous meetings and studies for the West Sound Regional Fire Authority, and the agencies will use as much of that work as possible.

Also at the Feb. 25 meeting:

• Senter said that SKFR is reviewing its mutual aid agreement with Pierce County Fire District 16, located just south of Kitsap County on the Key Peninsula.

Senter said Fire District 16 is struggling after failing to pass two levies in recent years, and SKFR is responding to Fire District 16’s territory more lately, with only two instances of mutual aid in 2008, but seven in 2009.

“We have to discuss these impacts and make sure we protect our citizens’ service,” Senter said, explaining that SKFR set a limit on the amount of mutual aid requests it will respond to from that district.

“If we exceed that limit, we will cancel the mutual aid contract,” he said. “We’re doing what we think is right without destroying the relationships between the agencies, which are pretty important.”

Bremerton Patriot staff writer Lynsi Burton contributed to this report.

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