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CONSOLIDATION WITHOUT THE SMOKESCREEN

Seven small Pinellas coastal communities made a mess of a tentative first step toward fire department consolidation, but it isn't too late to fix the process and start fresh, this time with more transparency. Consolidation is likely the only way small communities with limited revenue streams will be able to offer effective and efficient fire protection to their residents in the future.

The recent revelation that fire consolidation was being discussed has roiled St. Pete Beach, Madeira Beach, Treasure Island, Belleair Bluffs, Gulfport, South Pasadena and the Pinellas Suncoast Fire District. Most residents knew nothing about it, because the conversations occurred behind closed doors. Even some city managers and elected officials were clueless, because only the communities' seven fire chiefs were involved.

Yet the chiefs' discussion had progressed to the point that they already had given a name to a proposed consolidated fire department to serve the communities: South Pinellas Fire Rescue. They had drawn up an organizational chart that showed one fire chief at the head of the new department. And they had drafted a press release to announce what the group had decided and to lay out a timetable for executing the plan.

The fire chiefs of Madeira Beach and Belleair Bluffs have been fired by their city managers for the way they conducted themselves on the issue of consolidation. Elected officials are wondering why they were left out of the loop when they are the ones who control tax dollars.

The fire chiefs' initial plan as described in their press release makes one wonder whether their purpose was to advance consolidation or preserve their jobs and departments. The plan proposed that for the next five years, the seven separate fire departments would continue to exist but share personnel and equipment. For example, one training officer might coordinate training for all seven departments. After five years, the seven departments would blend into one called South Pinellas Fire Rescue with one chief and governed by a board with one appointee from each community.

The chiefs' idea raises a host of questions. The departments already share resources - in fact, they are dependent on each other for mutual aid since individually, most are too small to be able to send enough firefighters to a fire scene. Merely sharing a little more probably would not solve the financial crisis. Why lock in such a tentative arrangement for five years, delaying full consolidation when economic realities compel these small Pinellas communities toward that end?

And why would the chiefs settle on a proposal and prepare to announce it when it had not been vetted with their own city officials or the public? Was that mere clumsiness, a faulty process, or were the chiefs trying to implement a structure that would preserve their departments as the Pinellas County Commission is preparing to consider countywide fire department consolidation?

It is difficult enough for large departments fed by healthy tax bases to properly equip and staff public safety agencies these days. Small fire departments, sometimes consisting of just one station, are against a wall. These seven Pinellas departments need a fact-based discussion of true consolidation. But it ought to be done under the direction of public officials and with plenty of involvement from residents who need to be able to count on the fire department when they need it.

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