A Fire Commissioner’s Perspective: The time to make the switch to consolidation is now

Every 20 years, the issue of independent fire district consolidation boils to the surface. Not that it goes away during the intervening years, because it doesn’t. The gate keepers are always at work protecting the status quo, warding off reformists, ignoring public opinion and, as of late, praying that the economic recession will soon turn around and the money will, once again, pour in.

Try as they may, they can only stifle challenges to their status quo just so long. We are now, once again, at one of those 20-year intervals and the forces of the status quo have widely exposed flanks.

The challenges now faced by the independent fire districts are unprecedented in their 50-year history. Never before had they faced a prolonged 6-year decline in ad valorem tax revenues. In many parts of Collier County, service levels have been reduced and response times increased. The men and women, in the stations, work valiantly to serve their residents but realize that there is less money to go around.

In response to this continuing deterioration in service levels, various groups, alliances and committees have surfaced and are in the process of conducting studies, analyzing numbers, developing solutions and seeking efficiencies. I was elected to serve as a fire commissioner on a platform dedicated to seeking a better way; to seek and promote efficiencies in the deliverance of fire, rescue and emergency medical services. During my tenure we have taken $6 million out of the operating budget of the North Naples Fire & Rescue District. That is a 13 percent reduction in operating costs.

But my efforts have also been a learning experience. I have learned why an antiquated, creaking countywide delivery structure first put together in the 1960’s still functions 12 years into the 21st century. It continues to exist because the 21 elected fire commissioners, representing the 5 independent fire districts, want it to exist. But I see a small flicker of light at the end of the tunnel.

Fire commissioners are realizing the depths of this prolonged financial crisis. They can ignore it no longer. Their residents are beginning to speak up in displeasure. It is my opinion that we are now in a position to begin the process of developing a “better way.” To begin fully utilizing the 21st century personnel, technology and equipment that is available to us. It is time to put the accumulated negative baggage, the petty animosities, the hidden agendas and the destructive paranoia aside and move forward. And to do so in a positive, constructive manner that best serves the residents that we are charged with protecting. That is easier to say than to do but the involved parties must make the effort. Looked at another way we should strive to rebuild on our existing strengths not to tear down and destroy our existing assets.

Public pressure, involvement and activism are needed if we are to constructively rebuild. I want to encourage the readers to go to their fire district web page, find out what they are doing to provide service, attend their monthly board meetings and encourage them to seek better ways, let them know of your concerns. Importantly, pay attention to your elected fire commissioners. Can you do better? Maybe, maybe not, but put pressure on them. We are truly at a crossroads and in a position to make major moves in the right direction. Get involved.

The opinions expressed above are mine and not, necessarily, those of my fellow commissioners.

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Jim Burke is a commissioner on the North Naples Fire & Rescue District board.

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