By Natalie Johnson / firstname.lastname@example.org
While several members of a joint city of Chehalis and Lewis County Fire District 6 group spoke in favor of possible consolidation of the two fire services at a meeting Wednesday, they struggled to find a path forward they could all agree on.
“I’ll only speak for myself, this is going to happen someday,” said Mayor Dennis Dawes. “Why not think ahead? We’re supposed to be leaders. We’re supposed to be thinking 20, 25 years down the road.”
Representatives of the two boards met Wednesday night with Chehalis Chief Ken Cardinale, Fire District 6 Chief Tim Kinder and consultant Bob Merritt, of MHC Associates, who spoke with the boards about facilitating a citizen’s task force on area fire and EMS service.
“One of the purposes of this is to have an independent study and an independent recommendation,” Merritt said.
While the boards did not officially approve the use of Merritt’s service and create a task force, they asked him to come back with a proposed scope of work. They also agreed to begin compiling a list of possible participants in such a task force.
Merritt was a fire chief in Snohomish County for 25 years and has been in consulting for about 22 years, focusing on fire districts.
“Most of my projects surround either strategic planning or some kind of a cooperative effort among a number of entities who either want to share resources or do some kind of amalgamation,” he said
Under Merritt’s program, a group of about 12 citizens would make up the task force, which would spend much of its time learning all there is to know about the two fire organizations.
After that exploratory phase, they would set out to answer a core question, such as: What level of service do they expect from their fire department?
In answering that question, Merritt said the task forces usually begin discussing what form their fire service should take, such as individual departments, a regional fire authority or another structure. At the end of the process, which take as little as six weeks or as long as a few months, the task force would present its recommendation to the boards.
Merritt’s services to coordinate such a task force would cost between $10,000 and $12,000, he said.
Several years ago, an attempt at consolidation between Lewis County Fire District 6, the Chehalis Fire Department and the Riverside Fire Authority fell apart in the planning stages.
“In the past we have gotten B.S. so I don’t trust anybody anymore,” Chehalis City Councilor Daryl Lund said to Merritt. “I’m just telling you upfront.”
Last year, the Chehalis Fire Department and Fire District 6 again began discussing the possibility of combining their efforts to better serve the community.
The agencies already train together and have a mutual aid agreement to respond to fires and other emergencies.
Early this year, the city and fire district put meetings on hold while they researched consolidation options. During that time, the chiefs of both agencies worked to research options for a citizen committee on consolidation.
Cardinale and Kinder invited Merritt to Wednesday’s meeting, and spoke about the benefits of asking community members to evaluate a possible consolidation and bring back an unbiased opinion to the two boards.
“Instead of you getting our opinion of how this should be put together, you’re getting an opinion from the actual constituents that are receiving the service,” Cardinale said. “It gives you an unencumbered, non-biased opinion of which direction the people getting the service want to go.”
However, some members of the council and fire commission expressed doubts about whether a task force in the model that Merritt proposed was right for Chehalis.
“Do you want to honestly educate the public and let them know what happens in this town when there’s a fire? I don’t think you do, because it’s not good,” said Lund. “If I was a property owner, I’d be kind of scared knowing only eight guys from four districts showed up to fight the fire at my house.”
Others voiced an interest in input from residents in a formal setting, saying it could bring about new information that the councilors and commissioners had missed.
“Maybe there’s more to it that you would discover in the process you’re talking about,” Councilor Bob Spahr said to Merritt. “Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.”