Excerpts from the Journal-Sentinelonline.com:

The consolidation of seven municipal fire and rescue departments on the North Shore (WI) 20 years ago has saved the communities millions of dollars while providing a superior level of service, the Public Policy Forum says in a new report.

Those seven municipalities together would have paid a total of $2.8 million more annually in operating costs in 2014 to achieve an equivalent level of service, if they had not combined the departments into one unit, says the report, “Come Together: An analysis of fire department consolidation in Milwaukee County’s North Shore.”

Success of the North Shore Fire Department prompted Public Policy Forum President Rob Henken to remind other municipalities in southeastern Wisconsin that consolidating a variety of services — fire and rescue, police, health and even school districts — could save taxpayer dollars.

The numbers alone — 146 municipalities and 92 school districts in the seven-county region — show there is plenty of opportunity, Henken said.

While North Shore communities talked for 10 years before consolidation occurred in 1995, it could not have succeeded without the willingness of public officials to take a risk, Fire Chief Robert Whitaker said. Whitaker was there. He has been a firefighter with the department the entire 20 years and was promoted to chief in 2010.

“It took elected officials willing to work together and willing to lose a little of their local control,” Whitaker said. “Another challenge is loss of identity. A municipality’s name is no longer on the firetruck. It is not on a firefighter’s uniform. But when you show up at a home in an emergency, no one asks you where you are from.”

“Now, when you look back, you can see the progress,” he said. “We’re providing a much better service at a lower cost.”

This month, the department gained accreditation of its training and services by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. It is one of only 218 fire and rescue organizations in the U.S. that have achieved the recognition, Whitaker said.

To achieve those results, fewer resources are deployed today compared with the seven separate departments of 20 years ago, according to the forum report. There are 10 fewer firefighters. But the North Shore department’s full-time professional force comes with better training and quicker response times than in the past, when some police officers also had firefighting duties and some firefighters were paid-on-call.

The number of fire stations has been reduced from seven to five. The number of vehicles has been reduced from 31 to 15. Annual operating savings in 2014 for each North Shore municipality started at $14,279 for River Hills and climbed to more than $1 million for Shorewood, according to forum researchers. The other five communities and estimated annual operating savings are: Bayside, $258,483; Brown Deer, $624,717; Fox Point, $294,720; Glendale, $106,867; and Whitefish Bay, $410,110.

And the seven communities together would have paid $3.4 million more to replace all vehicles owned prior to consolidation than the North Shore department spent on vehicle purchases in 20 years, according to forum researchers.

The Village of Richfield contracts with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services. West Milwaukee buys fire and EMS services from Milwaukee.

In 2012, the Public Policy Forum encouraged five southern Milwaukee County communities to consolidate their fire departments. That hasn’t happened. Franklin, Greendale, Greenfield, Hales Corners, and Oak Creek could save $1 million annually in operating costs and about $4 million over five years in vehicle replacement costs if they formed one fire department, the report says.

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