Firefighting consolidation considered by county

Wichita Fire Department (KSN Photo / Raoul Cortez)

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Consolidation has been considered before, and now, it’s back.

“Let’s be real clear, this is just a discussion at this point,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell. “This is a conversation that has gone back several decades. When I became a commissioner, there has been this topic, probably monthly.”

Howell said he and at least one other commissioner are looking into consolidating Sedgwick County Fire with Wichita Fire and the Derby Fire Department.

“We (Sedgwick County Counsel) asked for an opinion of the Kansas Attorney General’s office, what it would take to consolidate? What are the issues?” said Howell. “Right now, we’re not even sure there is a will to do this. This would require maybe the departments or the districts to request consolidation as an initial step. And right now, I don’t know that is what they want to do.”

City officials said they have no idea and have not heard of the latest consolidation idea until this week.

City commissioner Pete Meitzner said he wants county leaders to talk to city commissioners.

“Our phones ring and our doors open. They can talk very easily,” said Meitzner. “We need to be included, even if it’s just an idea, a concept.”

Howell said the idea is to consolidate Derby fire as well as the Wichita and Sedgwick County Fire Departments.

“Well, I don’t know. That sounds a little difficult,” said Kathy Sexton, Derby City Manager. “But we’re waiting to hearing whatever the county puts in front of us as far as a proposal. We have not received anything yet. We are always interested in saving money.”

And money is one of the drivers in this concept. Howell said fire safety has to be the best it can be. He said the county has benchmarks for response times, and they are hitting their fire response times at least 80 percent of the time. But Howell also said they need to determine if money can be saved through consolidation.

“It could provide for some efficiency and some reduction of duplication of services,” said Howell. “Right now, when you’ve got this many fire department organizations across the county and it is not an efficient setup. So, we would, I guess like to have that discussion.”

Howell said there are nine county fire stations. Wichita has 22 fire stations. There are also small volunteer fire stations scattered across Sedgwick County.

Howell said at times there can be a fire response from a county crew, city crew and volunteer crew.

“We all help each other out,” said Howell.

Howell also points out that Sedgwick County Fire District # 1 covers areas where taxpayers are not paying into the fire district.

“And that’s something we have to consider,” said Howell. “Public safety is a priority. It has to be. So, the coverage has to be there. I wouldn’t say that we necessarily want it. Whether it’s good or bad that’s something that we have got to determine. But right now what I think this is about is trying to determine if it could be done and if it could be done, what are the limitations, what are the barriers, what are the things we need to know about?”

The Sedgwick County Firefighting union essentially goes away at the end of the year.

KSN asked the firefighting union that covers Wichita for an opinion on consolidation.

“The subject of consolidating fire departments has been discussed in this community for many years,” said Matt Schulte, President of the IAFF Local 135. “While this idea sounds good on paper in reality there is no real savings to be gained… Which Government entity is willing to take on the additional burden of absorbing another department and everything that comes with consolidating? If it was such a good idea it would have happened years ago.”

Sexton with Derby has a wait and see attitude.

“Could we save money and offer better services than we do now? That’s the question,” said Sexton.

So far, there is no official proposal. County leaders continue to study the consolidation concept.

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