Southern Milwaukee County communities leery about combining fire departments could still benefit from smaller changes that would increase efficiencies and save money.
That was one message Public Policy Forum President Rob Henken conveyed when he spoke Tuesday to the Oak Creek Common Council. It was an in-depth look at the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization's report that studied consolidation within the Oak Creek, Franklin, Hales Corners, Greendale and Greenfield fire departments.
Henken noted the communities already practice a lot of mutual aid, not only in responding to incidents but in training, communications and some purchasing.
But there could be more.
The Public Policy Forum found the vehicle fleet between the five departments, in particular, could be reduced. The departments could save roughly $3 million over the next five years if they did not follow the current vehicle replacement plan.
The organization looked at many aspects of the departments, such as training and operating under a closest-station-responds model, and found there could be greater efficiency and cost savings.
But Henken also recognized that any change comes with drawbacks. Even consolidating in a few areas, like training, may be difficult given the fire departments all operate by their own philosophies and procedures.
Each community also has its unique challenges. In Oak Creek, the We Energies power plant operates like a city of its own. It would be a tough task to cross-train fire personnel to assist there or at other Oak Creek industrial facilities like PPG, Alderman Dan Bukiewicz said.
"It's kind of apples-to-oranges comparing it, when it comes to protection services that our people are actually providing" vs. fire departments in the other communities involved with the study, he said.
Henken said he has heard concerns from officials in some communities, including Greendale and Hales Corners, who feel they would be negatively impacted by consolidation.
Ultimately, each community has to ask itself how much the financial savings are worth any changes, he said.
Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi said the study was a good step toward finding solutions to municipalities' ongoing budget struggles.
"When public safety's involved, it's a challenge that's outside of just the cost associated with it," Scaffidi said. "It's a difficult subject but it's one we're not going to get anywhere if we don't start looking at it."