Kan. county to create new position to coordinate, improve rural fire operations

The role would require working with existing FD leadership to develop plans for meeting the agreed-upon goals agreed and address issues raised in recent study

John Green
The Hutchinson News, Kan.

RENO COUNTY, Kan. — The Reno County Commission agreed Tuesday to create a new position of a fire service professional to help develop a strategic plan for improving the county's rural volunteer fire departments.

The recommendation from Emergency Management Director Adam Weishaar was an alternative to one made by an outside consultant in May that the county consolidate its eight rural departments into one operating under a single fire chief.

The individual would work with existing fire department leadership developing plans for meeting the goals agreed on by the fire departments and also address issues raised in a yearlong study by 5 Bugle Training and Consulting.

Weishaar reminded the commission at the start of Tuesday's discussion of the impetus behind the push for intervention in the current system and what he hopes to accomplish.

The county adopted a job description for its fire chiefs in 2017 because of numerous persistent problems with a few departments, he said.

"Some firefighters had not been paid in over a year," Weishaar said. "Some (chiefs) got open records requests they were not responding to, some were not turning in bills on time, they were not reporting (filing call response information required by the state), not attending meetings, not turning in budgets."

The fire chiefs all signed onto the policy, he said, but it resulted in little change.

More recently, several departments have sought permission to expand or rebuild fire stations to accommodate today's larger firefighting apparatus, but there is no plan to ensure that the locations of the stations or the assumption of long-term debt are properly addressing county needs.

"Before we lock in 30-year bonds, we need to look at changes that need to be made," Weishaar said.

His office is tasked with a significant amount of work related to the fire districts it doesn't have time to do, Weishaar said. That includes drafting budgets for all eight departments and tracking expenditures, handling workers' compensation insurance and claims, handling payroll, and open record requests.

After receiving the study last month, the fire chiefs, Weishaar, County Administrator Randy Partington, and Commission Daniel Friesen met to discuss what goals the departments could agree on and decide how to go forward over the next year.

Among goals the chiefs agreed to work to implement immediately were:

— Use of the Active911 notification system, a program some departments already have, which allows a firefighter to notify a chief electronically whether they can respond. The chiefs will then more quickly advise dispatchers when there is sufficient manpower to respond, cutting down on a delay in dispatching firefighters from another district if a team is not available;

— Paying bills when they are received;

— Participating in monthly meetings of the eight district chiefs and a quarterly meeting with the county administrator.

— Starting work on developing common standard operating guidelines that all departments will follow, though with an understanding it could take some time to adopt them and make them regular everyday practices;

Other longer-term goals include:

— Each district will appoint a training officer who will meet to create a training regimen to be implemented by June 2022. The plan includes online training at fire stations — requiring a computer and monitor for each location — as well as offering monthly coordinated in-person training open to anyone.

— Between June 2022 and 2023, departments will catalog all equipment and vehicles, while the county will create a standardized process for making Capital Improvement Program requests and draft a purchasing policy for smaller items.

— Revisiting pay for fire chiefs, which the county hasn't adjusted since 2007. Under the current schedule, pay ranges from $3,000 to $4,000 a year, depending on the size of the fire district. Departments are also allowed one designated assistant chief, who gets half that wage. The recommendations do not address volunteer firefighter pay, which is set at $20 per call, regardless of how long a firefighter is on the call, and $10 for attending training.

Items with no specific timeline include:

— Improving the ability to provide and respond to automatic aid requests outside of a fire district.

— Districts will be asked to create "heat maps" showing days and times department staff is not available and updating the E-911 computer-aided dispatch system with those new response plans.

— Explore utilizing a "mutual aid box alarm system." The system is triggered in the event of a major incident where the local fire department would be unable to cope on its own, coordinating the response, for example, to large fires, train accidents, hazardous material incidents, or emergencies with a large number of causalities.

Funding for the new position will be drawn from fire district levies, with each district sharing in the cost, though a formula for determining who pays what hasn't been developed.

Weishaar warned the commissioners, "there will be a little pushback from some of the districts."

"No one wants to be told how or what to do after so many years, but we need to have more accountability," he said.

The pushback began on Tuesday, with both the chief and deputy chief of Fire District No. 6, based in Sylvia, resigning.

After apparently discussing the resignations in an executive session at the start of the meeting, the commission voted at the meeting's end to accept them.

During the debate about creating the position, Commissioner Daniel Friesen raised the question of consolidation of all the districts as a way to eliminate the complicated issue of automatic aid responses.

He suggested the districts could continue to operate independently but as a consolidated district, eliminating the legal issues related to automatic aid.

Commissioner Chairman Ron Hirst said it was an issue the fire professional and district chiefs could look at and recommend, but not one he wanted the commission to initiate.

Partington noted with a fire professional on staff, the bookkeeping required to ensure a department received reciprocation for its response, often the sticking point in responding, would no longer be an issue.

"Part of that is the bookkeeping and having time to do it," he said. "If someone at the county oversees all that, it's taken care of and is not an issue."

After some discussion, Friesen made a motion that staff report back in six months on progress, including a recommendation on consolidation and a review of the proposed administrative structure.

The other commissioners, however, declined to second the motion. Eventually, he agreed to remove the language on consolidation and administration, which they then approved.


(c)2021 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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