New agreement results in increased cooperation between fire agencies

Saturday, May 30, 2009 | 11:38 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The joint training exercises conducted this week by firefighters from the Boone County Fire Protection District and the Columbia Fire Department are the clearest sign yet of significant changes in the way the two agencies will share duties under a new pact that takes the place of the territorial agreement. The exercises this month focused on offensive fire attack training, which concluded Saturday with two more sessions.

The new agreement went into effect on March 31. One of the biggest changes from the territorial agreement, which governed the relationship between the city and county fire agencies for 15 years, is that the Fire Department will respond to every incident within city limits, and the Fire Protection District will always respond to incidents within its jurisdiction.

Both agencies will respond to areas dubbed “automatic aid areas.” The term means that the area will still automatically receive aid from the closest fire station. Sometimes the closest station is part of the agency without jurisdiction, which results in a mix of city and county response.

The changes should resolve one of the concerns with the previous agreement, that some Columbia residents were paying city taxes and receiving fire services from the fire district alone. Some residents of subdivisions in more recently annexed areas of the city complained about the practice, according to previous Missourian reports.

Gail Blomenkamp, division chief of the fire district, said that prior to the new cooperative agreement, there were already a small number of automatic aid areas, such as in places where the city did not have fire hydrants and on interstates where there is limited access.

Another major change is in the financial arrangement between the two agencies. The city agreed to pay the fire district $672,756 for 2008, according to previous Missourian reports. Now, the city will pay the fire district $350,000 annually, with room for adjustments based on the increase or decrease in the number of responses by the two agencies, said Toni Messina, director of public communications for the city.

“Customers should expect seamless service,” said Scott Olsen, interim fire chief for the fire district. Olsen was selected as interim chief after Steve Paulsell retired from the fire district at the end of last year.

Olsen said that while the fire district will receive less income from the city, it will not suffer a large loss because the it will be responding to fewer calls and using fewer resources for responses within city limits under the new agreement.

“There is a reduction in our costs,” Olsen said. “It’s going to reduce the overall wear and tear on our fleet.”

In addition to joint training sessions with the Fire Department, the fire district is taking other steps to work with the city. For example, equipment will continue to be standardized across agencies to allow firefighters to become more familiar with the other’s equipment.

“When you standardize as much as you can, it’s good for the firefighters on the street,” Blomenkamp said.

Blomenkamp said that equipment standardization also creates the option for what the fire district thinks will be a money-saver: joint purchasing.

Through joint purchasing, the fire district and the Fire Department will make equipment bids and purchases together. The purchase of larger quantities could reduce the overall price and save both organizations money, Blomenkamp said.

The fire district has also provided the Mid-Missouri Bomb Squad, which is currently seeking FBI certification, with some of its bomb-detecting and handling equipment, Olsen said. The district lost its FBI certification in 2008 after a reassessment revealed that one of its volunteers had provided false information on his application, according to previous Missourian reports.

The new squad is assembled from members of the Fire Department, the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, the Columbia Police Department and the MU Police Department. Though some of the fire district’s equipment must remain in its possession because of the terms of the grant money used to purchase it, the district was able to give the squad some items, including bomb suits and a bomb-disposal trailer used for transportation of explosives, Olsen said.

Olsen said the fire district has been invited to join the new bomb squad.

“We haven’t made a decision yet,” Olsen said. “I don’t know if we will or not. It’s possible in the future.”

Citizens can also expect joint statistical reporting from the agencies as well. Olsen said the agencies are currently developing statistical data sets for comparison and hope to have a trial quarterly report ready in July.

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