Wednesday March 2, 2011 | The Orange County cities of Anaheim, Fullerton and Orange are weighing whether to dismantle their individual fire departments and form one agency that would handle fire protection for the entire area.

Such a merger could cut costs for all cities involved by reducing command staff, sharing training resources and fire stations in the 600,000-person region.

“The cities thought it was a good time to ask the tough questions from a business standpoint,” said Anaheim Fire Chief Randy Bruegman.

These three cities are not alone in their attempts to find cheaper ways to provide fire protection. First Brea, and most recently Costa Mesa, have thought seriously within the past year about dismantling their departments.

However, the complexities of merging different agencies with different economic and operational models have killed similar plans elsewhere, said the consultant working on the study. And one fire union official is already poking holes in the idea.

This is not the first time North County cities have looked at a merger — but, sources say, it is the first time the concept has gotten this much traction with cities’ fire officials. The two most talked about options are forming a joint powers authority between the cities or having one lead agency contract out fire services.

The cities are in the process of hiring the Folsom-based consulting firm Citygate Associates, LLC to conduct a six-month study that will begin this month.

Stewart Gary, who will lead the study for Citygate, said the study will examine three primary areas: Determining which services can be shared regionally, how to share the cost, and how to best govern the multi-agency relationship.

“To their [cities] credit, they’ve gone outside for a team of people with deep experience in all of those issues,” Gary said.

Joe Kerr, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, said there are hurdles to such a plan that could prove insurmountable, not the least of which being complicated compensation and leadership issues.

The merger could eliminate two fire chief positions, as only one fire chief might be required. Eliminating the two positions would save money, but Kerr says he doubts high-ranking fire officials would be eager to hand over their gold badges.

“Who is going to be the fire chief? How’s the City Council person going to have a say?” Kerr said. “Most of the time they can’t agree on those basic fundamentals, that’s why fire districts are so important.”

Kerr pointed to the Orange County Fire Authority’s failed bid to acquire Brea’s membership last year as a situation, he said, where high-ranking fire officials didn’t want to be demoted.

Gary led a successful merger between the Bay Area fire departments of Livermore and Pleasonton in the 1990s. However, he said that only in a “minority of the time” do these studies result in a merger.

Challenges include coming to a compromise on pay and benefits, agreeing to similar operational standards on things like fire prevention work, and working out the power-sharing agreement over the combined funds.

In one hypothetical situation, Gary said the city of Anaheim might require a lot more fire prevention work than the city of Orange. Orange’s fire department might not be setup to handle more fire prevention work, Gary said.

Gary also said gulfs in compensation and benefits and coming to a compromise that works for all cities could end up being problems that are too difficult to solve. “Some mergers are stymied by huge differences in pay and benefits, so how do you get to one payroll?” Gary said.

Brea’s experience shows the difficulties a city can have in giving up control over its fire protection funds. Three Brea council members said one reason they recently rejected joining the OCFA was because they did not want to relinquish control over how money is spent.

The OCFA includes 22 member cities, and 24 elected officials sit on the board of directors — one elected official for each member city and two county supervisors to represent the unincorporated territories. Having membership in such a large regional organization limits the level of control elected officials have over the way their contributed funds are spent.

Nontheless, the Brea fire department is going through a partial merger with the city of Fullerton. Fullerton Fire Chief Wolfgang Knabe is expected to take over as fire chief for both cities — that decision could come before City Council in April, Knabe said.

That means Brea’s fire department will be joined at the hip with Fullerton’s fire department. Although he didn’t want to leap to any assumptions before the study is done, Knabe acknowledged that he could see Brea joining a joint powers authority if it comes to pass.

“There’s a progression of steps. If the command merger goes, and it works well, and then this consolidation between cities goes — that would be the next step,” Knabe said. “It would make sense for Brea to be a part of that, as long as the councils agree.”

Another possibility is that if the northern cities form a joint powers authority, it could end up competing with the OCFA for member cities.

OCFA Spokesperson Kris Concepcion said while nothing precludes another joint powers authority from courting OCFA’s member cities, he couldn’t speculate as to whether leaving the OCFA might be a messy process.

“If it got to that point, it would have to be negotiated. It’s not something that can obviously happen overnight,” Concepcion said. “We don’t want any of our folks thinking they’re locked into an agreement.”

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