South Hutch council discusses fire department’s future; including closing it down

By Ashley Booker
Hutchinson News – February 27, 2017

Photo by Travis Morisse. Click on photo to view full-size.

Photo by Travis Morisse. Click on photo to view full-size.

The South Hutchinson City Council is widely discussing the future of its fire department – including the elimination of the service itself.

Council members have recently been talking about staffing the current facility and the ability to provide service. But, in all, the discussion revolves around affordability as the department’s budget has grown.

“The Council has made a commitment to providing the best service possible, but they are struggling with what the next move should be, and what the financial impact of that would be,” said Matt Stiles, city administrator, via email.

On Monday, members asked Stiles to create a report that would associate an estimated cost with every option they’ve discussed so far. Stiles said he believes he can have this information for the council’s next discussion on March 6.

When it comes to staff, they are considering the recruitment of more volunteers, adding additional part-timers, moving to a partly full-time staff with volunteers, offering an internship program or doing away with the fire service entirely and contracting with the Hutchinson Fire Department.

Before Chief Mike Patterson took over in 2013, the all-volunteer service mainly consisted of firefighters who worked and lived in the city limits. This allowed them to respond at any time.

Patterson was hired to modernize the department to address new volunteer training standards, find more volunteers and make necessary improvements to outdated equipment, Stiles said.

Part-time employees have been hired to cover during the week, which began in 2014, and the weekend, which began in late 2015. They were added after SHFD realized more and more volunteers couldn’t respond during the day.

The city also agreed to pay Hutchinson to respond to structure fires in 2014. This agreement has been renewed through 2018.

The enhanced protection has caused the fire department’s budget to rise.

“Increased protection and improved fire rating are positive signs of the efforts to modernize the department, but there is a constant need for volunteers and investment,” Stiles said. “There is a concern that the volunteer base that responds locally is too small and if a few people move on it would increase the pressure on the rest to respond all the time.”

This could potentially create unsafe situations for both citizens and responders.

For now, he said, the department has the required number of firefighters who respond to both fire and medical calls, but that may not be the case in the future.

Firefighters told council members Monday that they were concerned with how well HFD would be able to serve their residents if SHFD closed down.

One example they offered was if someone was stuck inside a burning structure or having a heart attack, and a truck was responding from north of the railroad tracks because the one south of the tracks was covering something else, and they were stuck behind a train, this resident could die.

Both departments have assisted each other with incidents.

The almighty dollar and finding volunteers

In making a decision about the department’s future, Council Member Dave Pitman said he believes members are having a hard time adjusting to the previous chiefs’ budgets – which Stiles said was a little over $66,000 in 2003, and has increased over the years to around $96,000 in 2010 and $123,000 in 2012 – compared to where it is today, at more than $380,800 under Patterson.

“There’s no dispute that the budget has grown significantly over the past three to four budget cycles,” Stiles said.

It’s primarily been due to adding part-timers, purchasing a ladder truck in 2013, investing in staff training and updating outdated equipment.

Patterson indicated it’s been difficult to find qualified volunteer firefighters with roots in South Hutch, or who live within the 10-minute response time.

And when they do find someone, most times, they have to go through firefighter training first.

“If you want to be a volunteer fireman, you’ve got to come in and commit to at least a semester course in Fire Fighter 1, and we’d like for you to have Fire Fighter 2,” Patterson said about the station requirement. “We have to do a considerable amount of training with you before we even let you do anything on a fire apparatus.”

“It’s just not the same fire service that it was when I started in 1978,” he said, and the level of commitment these days isn’t the same as it was back then, either.

Since Patterson took over, he’s seen around 20 people sign up, get training and be outfitted with more than $2,000 in gear, and then, all of a sudden, that commitment fades and they leave.

Patterson said it’s disappointing.

Of the current 27 staff members Patterson has, 12 work for HFD. Depending on the day, he could have one or all help cover South Hutch – in addition to the three who work part-time.

An outdated facility

Another problem SHFD is having is its current facility, which was built in the 1970s.

It’s too small for modern equipment and doesn’t have living quarters, which would be needed to add overnight employees or volunteers.

“If the city pursues any option other than contracting with Hutch Fire, then a new (free standing station) or remodeled station will be required in the future,” Stiles said.

Stiles and Patterson have met with two builders who indicate a free standing building, possibly located behind the current station at 2 S. Main St., would be the best option.

“The Council has gone back and forth on a lot of the options, but hasn’t reached a consensus on the best route to take,” he said.

They also must keep in mind what’s been done in the past. SHFD has been around since November 1953, Stiles said. There was also some kind of contractual relationship between Hutch and South Hutch for at least 17 years, but maybe as long as 67 years.

Mayor Pete Murray and Council Member Erwin Leeper have a real commitment to the department, as both retired from the fire service after volunteering for more than 20 years.

“I am very reluctant to give up our fire department,” Leeper said. “I think the firemen will more or less agree with that idea, and I’m sure the citizens will too. Anything we can do to maintain our fire department, we’re better off as a community.”

Murray agreed.

“I hate to give up our department to another city, just because we’re in a financial bind on it,” he said.

But for council members Larry Meadows and Pitman, the decision comes down to the safety of their citizens and firefighters.


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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