A little more than a year in, the merger of four South Beach fire districts, the Westport Fire Department and South Beach EMS into the South Beach Regional Fire Authority is beginning to show some benefits to first responders and the communities they serve.
“I see benefits every day I come to work,” said Chief Dennis Benn.
“It was absolutely the right thing to do,” said District 3 (Grayland) Fire Commissioner David McLellan, saying it was the right move “for the organization and for the citizens” of South Beach.
The combining of Grays Harbor fire districts 3, 11 and 14 and Pacific County fire district 5 with Westport Fire and South Beach EMS was years in the making and designed to streamline operations for Westport, Ocosta, North Cove, Grayland and Tokeland. Voters approved the plan in the late summer of 2017, and the South Beach Regional Fire Authority was officially formed Oct. 1 of that year.
“I would say our internal communications are better because we have one authority now rather than five,” said Benn.
Instead of five commissioners for each of the fire districts, there are now five for the entire regional fire authority, one from each of the previous districts.
“We are now speaking with one voice,” said McLellan. “There’s no ‘them and us.’ It’s all us, and I feel it’s getting better every single day.”
Benn said when there’s an issue somewhere within the authority, there’s no longer the finger pointing and blame exchanges that can occur between the leadership of five different districts.
“If there’s a problem, we fix it,” said Benn.
Any changes in response time have yet to be quantified, said Battalion Chief Daryl Brown.
Emergency calls go through a contracted 911 call center and are sent to the fire authority’s headquarters station in Westport. It is then distributed to the appropriate station depending on the location of the incident and the equipment needed. Brown said the authority is “still trying to gather data” and is still working on deployment plans to provide the best service possible.
The role of the fire commission, known in regional fire authority terms as a governance board, is similar to those of other fire districts.
“Our primary role is to provide the money,” said McLellan. “When (the fire authority) is in need of something it has to go through us.”
Managing the daily operations of the fire authority falls to the two chiefs: Benn, and Brown.
“As far as the day-by-day operations go we have our two chiefs to take care of it,” said McLelland. “We try to stay out of that.”
Another benefit, both financially and in terms of the best use of equipment, is whittling down the redundancy that occurred with five different fire districts.
“If a district had the need for a new engine they would have to go out for a bond,” said Brown. Now, with all the equipment housed under one authority, leadership can look around and see if there’s another truck that could be best used at another station. Brown calls that “cost avoidance,” making due with existing equipment as opposed to having to reach out to the public for the cost of a new one.
A simple, but good example of cutting down on redundancy is administrative equipment, like paper shredders.
“We’re in the process of inventory right now, getting a handle on what we have, and one is paper shredders,” said Benn. “This area had 16, when we probably only need one or three.”
It’s up to the leadership to determine the needs of the stations within the authority.
“We need to have a handle on the needs,” said Benn. “It comes to us, we evaluate it and pass it up the chain.”
The fire authority saves on insurance costs as well.
“Now we have one insurance company instead of five,” said McLellan, which keeps costs down.
Emergency responders require frequent training, all closely monitored by the state. Brown said he feels the training in the region has been streamlined since the regional fire authority was formed.
“We are all training the same way, working on the same things,” he said. With the same training regimens, personnel can work together more seamlessly, training planning becomes easier to manage, and the piles of paperwork to document the training is easier to keep track of. Brown calls this a “work in progress” a year in to the consolidation.
The need for volunteers continues in the fire authority. A dedicated and well-staffed volunteer crew is critical to fast and effective emergency response, as it is in most areas of Pacific and Grays Harbor counties. Those volunteers, too, need to be trained.
“There are training requirements for volunteers,” said Benn, plus medical and background checks. Training is important not just for the people in need in emergency situations, but for the volunteers themselves. “Fire doesn’t distinguish between paid personnel and volunteers,” said Benn.
Because of the location of the South Beach Regional Fire Authority, the diversity of training must cover a lot of ground as well.
“”We’re unique here in we not only have to have fire and EMS, we have water rescue, wildfires” and a number of area-specific needs not found in some other districts, said McLellan.
South Beach brand
Brown said another challenge for the fire authority in its first year has been its brand.
“One struggle, which you would have to work on with any company or organization changes, is establishing a brand so the public recognizes the delivery system,” said Brown.
The new name, the new logo and patches, all need to be promoted throughout the authority so people clearly recognize who is delivering the emergency services to them.
“We have Westport, South Beach EMS and all the districts under one umbrella,” said Brown. To that end there is a new website, still under construction, a strong social media presence and a public appearance from the newly decked-out trucks and other equipment sporting the South Beach Regional Fire Authority brand.