Last month, Randy Horiuchi announced that he wanted to combine the fire departments of Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City. Now, the newly elected county commissioner is expanding his vision.
He wants to combine all valley fire departments into one - an idea that's receiving less than enthusiastic endorsement from fire officials in many of the valley's suburbs."I didn't know Randy wanted his department to work for Sandy City," joked Sandy Fire Chief Jacob Nielson. Like many of his peers, Nielson is cautious about the plan. Most cities are not anxious to give up control of their fire departments and to turn their chiefs into mid-level administrators in a large organization.
"I think that's a very ambitious plan," Nielson said. "It possibly could work, but would take a tremendous amount of cooperation and tremendous changes operationally and administratively. I don't know if that is possible at this time."
Horiuchi envisions a department that would better serve the public. Fire stations would be built in strategic places with a valleywide strategy in mind. He doesn't want any firefighters to lose their jobs, but he believes taxpayers can save money by combining all the administrative jobs.
Murray Fire Chief Wendell Coombs agrees that if done in a proper way the plan could work and money could be saved. "But it has to have the cooperation of every fire chief, every mayor and every city. They all have to make a decision that they will have to lose their pond."
Instead of consolidating departments, Coombs advocates creating a fire district. All community fire departments would be included in the district, but each would have the option of pulling out when dissatisfied. Each would also maintain its identity. "That wouldn't be possible in a consolidation where all trucks would be painted the same and each department would lose its identity," Coombs.
Midvale Fire Chief Merrill Ross said he is skeptical of Horiuchi's proposal and wants to see evidence that taxpayers would benefit from such a consolidation.
"I think it will be tough for our city because our City Council has a strong desire to keep the government close to the people," he said. "There's a lot of work that has to be done before they can even consider such a consolidation."
He likens Horiuchi's proposal to "putting the cart before the horse."
Nielson thinks the county should first explore other options, like a good, solid automatic aid program - a system of dispatching the closest fire station to the fire.
Meanwhile, fire officials want more information on the proposed consolidation plan.
Most fire chiefs contacted Thursday hadn't even heard of Horiuchi's plan - much less read any proposal. They, in fact, were irked by the fact that Horiuchi announced his intentions to reporters before talking to the people involved. Other cities had discussion of the proposal on their city council agendas.
Horiuchi says he has discussed his plans with some cities' council members. He wants them to understand that he won't force anyone to join and he won't upset any of the agreements that currently allow fire departments to help each other in emergencies.
"I know there was a reaction from other cities who said they were wary," he said. "We have excellent mutual-aid contracts, and we don't want that to change at all."
He has yet to meet with Salt Lake City officials, who also were blase about consolidating fire departments. The commissioner admits the process will take time.
If nothing else, he wants the county to identify which fire stations are in danger of collapsing during an earthquake. He said many stations should be relocated so that firefighters aren't trapped.
Meanwhile, Horiuchi also is looking at other areas that could be consolidated, such as garbage collection.
"This process has started to open eyes to the idea that maybe we can cooperate between the city and county better," he said.