A handful of north-metro leaders hope that what started as a temporary fire service fix for one city can be negotiated into a win-win-win-win-win situation.
A multi-city fire district is under study by the cities of Ramsey, St. Francis, Nowthen, Bethel and Oak Grove, at the northern edge of Anoka County.
Earlier this year, after the resignation of its fire chief, St. Francis officials signed a contract for 10 hours a week of the Ramsey fire chief's hours, to take care of the department's administrative duties.
St. Francis City Administrator Matt Hylen said last week that the City Council has just extended the six-month contract with Ramsey Chief Dean Kapler for another six months. Ramsey already had been providing fire service to Nowthen.
"It is working well for the fire department and for the city of St. Francis, and the city of Ramsey was willing to continue," Hylen said. "We cross borders all the time with Nowthen. We thought, why not investigate the idea of having a Western Anoka fire district or fire service?"
Bethel and Oak Grove had participated in previous joint-powers discussions, so they were asked to join in, too.
It isn't clear what a joint fire service could look like. A study group of elected and appointed officials from the five cities has until April to report back to their cities. It could be that the cities maintain most of their current structure but operate under the supervision of one administrative office, with battalion chiefs or other supervisors reporting to local sites. Or perhaps the current districts will be shuffled to improve response times.
Also unclear is how much overhead the five cities could save by combining forces.
"The comments that have come out general are that we need to look at this for a win for everybody," Hylen said. "It's not merging for the sake of merging and have costs go up for everybody."
Some possible advantages already have been identified: Firefighters who work in one community and live in another also could report for duty in both cities, he said. Access to more firefighting equipment could provide insurance benefits for homeowners. In areas where houses are closer to another city's fire station than to their own, response times could be decreased.
"There's no way we would want to have less service or greater response time," said Ramsey City Administrator Kurt Ulrich. "We're looking for ways to improve the service."
He pointed to his city's agreement with Nowthen.
"They provide the building, and we do the administration and personnel," he said. "There's a big advantage to both organizations. We could provide the administrative services, as well as the training and supervision that a fire department needs.
"This economy provides ample reason to look for efficiencies," he said, adding that the cities will look at examples of successful fire cooperatives, including those in Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Moundsview, Anoka-Champlin, Centennial and others.
"We will explore all the options to see what makes the most sense," he said.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409