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All for one, one for all?

Report recommends merger of Ossipee's three fire precincts

October 15, 2009
OSSIPEE — Municipal Resources Inc. (MRI) submitted a draft of its much-anticipated study on the potential of consolidating the town's three fire precincts into one town-wide service.

And, yes, the consultants state that merging the three precincts is indeed "feasible."

The 142-page draft report was distributed Monday to the board of selectmen, fire precinct commissioners and fire chiefs from the West Ossipee, Ossipee Corner and Center Ossipee. The board of selectmen will hold a meeting with Fire Chiefs Bradley Eldridge (West Ossipee), Chief Adam Riley (Ossipee Corner), and Chief Mike Brownell (Center Ossipee), and precinct commissioners on Monday, Oct. 19 at 10 a.m. at town hall to review the accuracy of the data included in the study. Voters sanctioned the study and the $19,000-plus cost at this year's town meeting.

In the two-page executive summary, MRI states that merging the precincts could have financial benefits and could improve efficiency.

"MRI believes the consolidation of the three precinct fire departments into a single precinct fire department is highly feasible, would improve the delivery of fire and rescue services, and would result in considerable fiscal benefits to the citizens of Ossipee," according to the summary.

"While there are a number of legal, organizational, and political hurdles to overcome in order to make the merger a reality, the long-term benefits to the community will far outweigh the short-term impact that this change will have on the Center Ossipee, Ossipee Corner and West Ossipee Fire Departments.

The report recommends that the existing volunteer, on-call firefighter system be continued, but that they have identified a number of ways in which the recruitment and retention of volunteers can be enhanced. The report also suggests ways for standardizing the existing pay and benefits structure.

Look at the study as a roadmap for improving the delivery of fire protection and rescue services. Many of the recommendations can be implemented without waiting for the process of fire department consolidation to be completed, states the report. MRI encouraged the three precincts to meet regularly to improve the coordination of fire services; establish a plan for implementing the recommendations in this report; and report on their progress to respective members and to the community on a regular basis.

During the course of the study, MRI conducted interviews with the board of selectmen, the three fire chiefs, the commissioners of each precinct, fire officers, volunteer firefighters, and other officials including the NH State Fire Marshal, Carroll County Sheriff's Office, Ossipee Valley Mutual Aid Association, area fire chiefs, Town of Ossipee code enforcement officer and the Ossipee. The report also points to strained communications and a lack of common vision between the precincts and the town governing board.

"Over the course of the study, the paramount theme that has surfaced is the lack of a sense of common vision for the delivery of cost effective fire services among and between the three precincts and the town of Ossipee. This isolation extends to all aspects of planning, operations and resources allocation. The precincts have not made any effort to eliminate or reduce duplicate apparatus, equipment, staffing and response patterns. Administrative expenses have increased over time and no longer provide realistically balanced oversight. Communications between the three precinct fire commissions and elected town officials appear to be strained and limited.

"As the projected costs of municipal fire protection continue to escalate rapidly, it is responsible to seek alternative and more cost-effective solutions in selecting and managing the delivery of these crucial services.

"MRI believes that it is not feasible nor cost-effective for a community the size of Ossipee to operate three separate and distinct fire departments. While change can be initially disruptive and difficult, we also believe that it is possible to transition to a single fire department without losing the positive attributes of each of the individual organizations," states the report.

Contacted for comment earlier this week, Fire Chief Eldridge said he hadn't had a chance to review the report in its entirety, but planned to do so prior to Monday's meeting at town hall.

"I wish people would look at it with an open mind," said Eldridge, who supported the funds for the feasibility study at this year's town meeting.

He said the report appears to have looked at the "bottom line" but one question is whether the town as a whole is ready for consolidation.

Ossipee Corner Fire Chief Adam Riley said Tuesday that he had not yet finished the report, but was already taking notes and putting sticky notes on pages with questions or concerns.

"I'm halfway through the report… it will take some time to finish it. I did find some inaccuracies from some of my readings and have been making notations. But I haven't drawn an opinion," said Riley, who agreed the report was extensive.

At first glance, however, he said some statements regarding incompatibility of equipment were inaccurate, as well as the report's claim that the precincts don't purchase used apparatus. They do. He said the report lacks discussion of the department's ambulance contact, which is $199,000 of actual expense. The report, he said, also failed to verify safety records and equipment certifications, and failed to inspect fire protection clothing to see if it met industry standards.

"We have been cost effective about what we've been doing. Price of fuel, workers comp … those are going to be fees we can't control," he said.

"I realize as a taxpayer the economy isn't good. There are multiple houses in town that have been foreclosed on. I, on my own, removed $12,000 from our operating budget this here – that's huge money," he said.

"At the same time, I'm very open minded about finding a better way," he added.

Select Board Chair Kathleen Maloney declined to comment except to say that she looks forward to Monday's meeting to determine the accuracy of the report. She added that she does feel the report was thorough and reflects what the board and town had required. Any consolidate plan would have to be voted upon by each precinct, she added.

Matin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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