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According to Emergency Services Consulting International, the firm hired to explore the cities' options, that's when some fun will ensue.
"When (communities) decide to move forward with it and they actually start creating a firm implementation plan, in other words saying, 'this is how we're going to do this, this is how we're going to do this, we've decided to govern it this way,' the real excitement starts," ESCI Senior Vice President of Operations Philip Kouwe said.
"When they start talking about how they're going to pay for it, that's when the creativity really swoops into action."
Kouwe said the neighboring cities should reach that point once ESCI provides them with a Financial and Operational Analysis of Organizational Strategy Options report some time this summer. He spoke this week at public forums in Shaker and University Heights, where officials are considering merging some or all of their fire and emergency medical services.
The report will mark the third step in ESCI's four-part process for helping cities decide on fire mergers. The forums represented the public-input portion of considerations. Residents received a form for concerns that city officials and ESCI will examine while they make decisions on the future.
The meeting on Tuesday in University Heights was mostly attended by fire personnel and other city workers. Nobody expressed clear opposition to a merger. They instead took in an hour-long presentation in which Kouwe discussed overlapping fire routes, personnel levels, demand, distribution and concentration. Training and maintenance are also areas that would could be merged.
Questions regarding how much money could be saved or the possible consolidation of department structures and jobs won't be answered until the final report is released this summer, Kouwe said.
His preliminary data shows comparative figures most would expect from University Heights and its larger neighbor. For example, Shaker's fire department has 54 operations workers to University Heights' 28. Shaker's average staffing for a structure fire is about 12 workers, compared to 6 in University Heights. University Heights receives about half the calls Shaker does. Only 5 percent of both cities' calls result in actual structure fires. That amount is in line with state and national averages, Kouwe said.
ESCI used response-time data that the departments provided to the National Fire Incident Reporting System. In 2011, from the time a dispatcher received a call to arrival, Shaker's first unit, on average, responded in five minutes. University Heights averaged four minutes and 21 seconds. That similarity works in a merger's favor, Kouwe said.
"We don't see any significant differences — these two departments are actually performing very much in similarity to each other," Kouwe said. "The citizens of both communities have generally come to expect and experience a pretty similar level of service."
Another part of the preliminary study shows that it would take four minutes of travel time to get anywhere within the cities' service area from any of the three stations. Dispatching is one potentially problematic area of difficulty Kouwe sees between the communities. Shaker and University Heights both use the Eastcom joint dispatching system with , but the individual departments still get individual calls. Once a call is determined to be a fire or EMS call, it is transferred to Eastcom. That system isn't as efficient as one used in Hennepin County, Minn., where calls and dispatching are handled from one location, Kouwe said.
According to a June 2011 article in The Sun Press, Cleveland Heights Mayor Ed Kelley was disappointed he was not invited to participate in the fire department merger conversation, as he has supported the idea of joint operations in the past.
The Cleveland Foundation gave the cities a $40,000 grant to help cover the cost for North Carolina-based ESCI's $50,000 study, University Heights Mayor Susan Infeld said. The Cleveland Foundation told the cities $25,000 could go toward the study, while the remainder should be spent on implementation costs resulting from the study's conclusions. The cities agreed to split the remaining half based on population size. Under the agreement, Shaker will pay $17,000 and University Heights will pay $8,000.
The one-mile distance between the University Heights Fire Department and Station Two of the Shaker Heights department is large reason a merger makes sense, Infeld said. The mayor also cited the cities' desire to join regional efforts in general.
Infeld withheld comments on the likelihood of a merger.
"It's too soon to say, we need to have more information," Infeld said. "My hope is that it will show us ways that we can be more efficient and show us ways that we might save costs whether or not we merge some services, merge all services or merge none.
"At a minimum, it will gives us information on how we can operate more efficiently."