Twenty years ago, seven municipalities along Milwaukee County’s north shore entered into a virtually unprecedented collaboration. The communities of Bayside, Brown Deer, Fox Point, Glendale, River Hills, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay merged their fire and emergency responder programs and together created the North Shore Fire Department.
There were high hopes but also a lot of concerns raised over that merger, hopes and concerns that have been echoed as other communities have begun to explore similar consolidation. A study released Tuesday by the Public Policy Forum examines how well the North Shore Fire Department has fared in its first 20 years.
"The question is if each of the seven communities today had its own fire department and was trying to achieve the same level of service as the North Shore Fire Department is providing, what would the cost savings be?" Public Policy Forum president Rob Henken asks. "And we find that the savings are about $2.8 million across the seven communities and that each of them are saving money."
In addition to examining the operations and finances of the NSFD, the report looked at what fire and EMS services could have looked like today had the merger never taken place.
Prior to consolidation in 1994, the entire North Shore collectively had only 12 trained paramedics compared to the 33 trained paramedics today. And while there are fewer resources being extended, the quality of the service has improved in addition to the substantial cost savings, despite initial concerns over lower quality service.
"The fear always is we don't want to save a few bucks if it means that our citizens are going to receive a lesser degree of service," Henken says. "But in this paradigm you're actually using consolidation first and foremost as an opportunity to improve service levels, and then secondarily to cut costs."
The NSFD has served as an ideal example to other municipalities locally, statewide and even nationally. Yet, surprisingly the model has not been embraced widely. Several Milwaukee counties are considering a change, but the model is best implemented on a case-by-case basis, according to Henken.