Merriam, Overland Park find advantages to fire department collaborations

05/20/2014 3:36 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

For years, a medical emergency call to the Merriam Fire Department meant a big fire truck in front of the house, lights ablaze, with neighbors looking on. It was costly to the city and embarrassing to the caller, said Merriam Fire Chief Bob Pape.

This year, though, things are different thanks to a new partnership between Merriam and Overland Park. Emergency medical personnel arrive on the scene in a Chevy Tahoe, not a full fire rig. The Tahoe, owned by Overland Park, uses Merriam as its home base. The crew comes from both cities.

The 5-month-old arrangement benefits both cities. Merriam saves the expense of bringing out a fire truck when a smaller and cheaper SUV can do the job as well. And in return for Overland Park’s investment, the Tahoe and Merriam Fire Department answer calls in a small northern part of town that didn’t have an Overland Park fire station nearby.

“So far this has really been an excellent match for both our organizations,” said Merriam City Administrator Phil Lammers.

In fact, the arrangement has worked so well this year that both fire departments are working on a bigger, long-term collaboration to put before their city councils next year.

Details are still being worked out, but Pape and his counterpart in Overland Park, Chief Bryan Dehner, are looking for a way to save the cost of replacing three management positions on the Merriam Fire Department that will be vacant next year. Overland Park would continue to use the Merriam fire station as its base for calls in the northern part of the city.

All this came about because of both cities had needs that weren’t being met as well separately, the chiefs said. Merriam had to use a fire truck for medical calls. And Overland Park had to contract with another provider to serve about a one-square-mile area north of Johnson Drive between Merriam and Mission. The closest Overland Park station to that area is on West 75th Street about 2 miles from Johnson Drive.

Before last year, Overland Park contracted with Consolidated Fire District No. 2 for services in that area and another larger area in the eastern part of the city . Last year, they paid the consolidated district about $452,900 for those two areas. Using the Merriam station as a base is expected to save the city about $108,500 this year on that contract.

This year, Overland Park got fire and medical services to that area. In return, the city provided Merriam firefighters with fire, medical and specialty rescue training as well as the Tahoe.

The smaller vehicle for medical calls has the potential to save the city a bundle, said Pape. About three-quarters of the 1,800 calls per year are medical calls. So far this year, fuel savings alone has been about $200 a month.

“Almost more important than the savings is the level of service constituents are getting for the taxes they pay,” said Lammers. The city is getting advanced life support from the new arrangement, which they didn’t have before. And some of those constituents have appreciated that their medical calls weren’t answered with 120,000 pounds of fire equipment and a crew of six, he said.

The next possible step, which will be considered as both cities write their 2015 budgets in the next few weeks, may be for Overland Park to take over supervisory positions that will be vacant when Pape retires next year.

Pape, a 38-year veteran of the Merriam fire department, has also been covering the fire marshal’s job for the past five years. And about a month ago, another long-time Merriam firefighter, Lonnie McGill, retired as captain.

One possibility would be for Overland Park to do the recruiting, training and supervision, while Merriam keeps the equipment and station, Lammers said. Both cities would continue to have separate fire department budgets, however.

Such an arrangement would not cost firefighters anything in salary or benefit cuts, both fire chiefs said. State retirement system rules would still apply, and no one loses seniority, for example.

“Nobody goes backwards and most everybody goes forward at least a little bit,” Lammers said. “It’s pretty hard not to like.”

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