A new study that says seven Jefferson County municipalities should talk further about consolidating their fire departments has broad implications for the Cambridge and Deerfield areas.

It makes us want to re-open talk of merging the Cambridge Area EMS with other neighboring agencies like Deer-Grove EMS, and maybe this time bring a fire department merger into the mix, too.

Jefferson County hired the Wisconsin Policy Forum to conduct its study released on Feb. 19. It looked at the potential for the county’s seven largest municipalities — Watertown, Whitewater, Fort Atkinson, Jefferson, Lake Mills, Waterloo and Johnson Creek — to cooperate in a host of areas including fire, emergency dispatch, police and public works.

In the end, the Policy Forum found fire and emergency dispatch are strong candidates for additional discussion and possible action.

The Policy Forum stressed in a release that the study’s purpose “was not to make recommendations, but to provide fiscal and program analysis that would help officials and citizens themselves decide whether further research or action is warranted. “

The report notes that of the seven municipalities, only Watertown has full-time firefighters. The other six have various volunteer firefighter arrangements.

According to the study, reasons it might make sense to merge fire departments across municipal lines in Jefferson County include the high capital cost of buying and maintaining fire trucks and other equipment, the potential for a “more stable” corps of volunteer firefighters and quicker response times. Together, those “make this a service area ripe for further research on consolidation or service sharing possibilities,” the study says.

A PDF of the full Wisconsin Policy Forum report, “Greater Than The Sum,” is attached to the online version on this article on the Cambridge News & Deerfield Independent’s website.

This isn’t the only recent fire consolidation study the Wisconsin Policy Forum has conducted. A study it released in December said four Milwaukee-area fire departments, including Greenfield and Franklin, could save money if they consolidated.

And across Wisconsin, other fire and EMS services have merged with neighbors in recent years.

The Jefferson County study intentionally didn’t address EMS consolidation; that is the subject of a separate study now underway by the Policy Forum, to be released soon.

This isn’t a new local conversation.

In 2015, Deer-Grove EMS, which serves the Deerfield and Cottage Grove areas, began talking with the Cambridge Area EMS and the Marshall EMS about merging. The three EMS services formed a consolidation committee late in 2016. Up to thirteen municipalities – the villages of Marshall, Cottage Grove, Deerfield, Cambridge and Rockdale; Dane County towns of York, Medina, Sun Prairie, Christina, Cottage Grove and Pleasant Springs; and Jefferson County towns of Oakland and Lake Mills – were eyed to come together.

But before a merger study could get underway, at a projected cost of $50,000, the process fell apart. Marshall pulled out of the talks in mid-2017, deciding instead to work with Towns of York, Medina and Sun Prairie to hire two full-time firefighter-EMTs to serve their four municipalities.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum’s Jefferson County consolidation study and its pending EMS study are good catalysts to reopen talk of an EMS merger in eastern Dane County, and to maybe also talk about an eastern Dane County fire merger.

Tentative numbers on operational and capital cost savings if Deer-Grove, Cambridge and Marshall EMS would have merged were discussed in 2016 and 2017. New, more solid numbers would be needed today.

We’d like to see that updated analysis done before talk progresses further on expanding Cambridge’s fire and EMS station.

The Cambridge Area Fire and EMS Commission, which has representatives from the Villages of Cambridge and Rockdale and the Towns of Christiana, Oakland and Lake Mills via a longstanding intergovernmental agreement, has begun talking about expanding the station they jointly operate on West Main Street in Cambridge.

The five entities each annually fund a portion of Cambridge-area fire and EMS costs based on their equalized values. The expected $5-$7 million cost of expanding the station would be similarly split.

They tentatively expect to hold five simultaneous fire and EMS station expansion referendums in April 2021.

Before being asked to open their pocketbooks, taxpayers in Rockdale, Cambridge and the Towns of Christiana, Oakland and Lake Mills deserve to see an updated report that compares, side-by-side, the long-term potential cost of merging Cambridge fire and EMS with a neighboring fire and EMS department or neighboring departments with the long-term cost of expanding the Cambridge fire and EMS station and running it into the future. The cost of full-time firefighters and additional full-time EMTs, which some conventional wisdom says is the future, should be part of the analysis.

Questions abound, including what would merged departments look like operationally and facility-wise?

For now, the Deerfield Volunteer Fire Department and Deer-Grove EMS appear to have adequate space at their buildings in the Deerfield Industrial Park and in Cottage Grove.

With a merger, would an expanded fire and EMS station still be needed in Cambridge or could its current space crunch be solved by regionally shuffling personnel, equipment and trucks? Would a lesser Cambridge expansion suffice?

The Policy Forum limited the scope of its recent study to Jefferson County’s seven largest municipalities, in an effort to simplify its analysis. If the county opts to continue the conversation, smaller Jefferson villages and towns might be invited in. We’re eager to see how that might evolve.

Consolidation isn’t just about money.

It involves blending personnel, trucks, stations, and equipment but also policies and cultures. In small Wisconsin communities, fire and EMS departments have long played a central role in civic life. Concerns about a loss of local identity are real with merged departments.

Cambridge has also long been tied into professional Dane County EMS and fire circles through chiefs’ associations and Dane County Board governance. But the village is dissected by the Dane-Jefferson County line. Rather than a merger with agencies that lie west of it, might it look to the east?

Might further analysis of consolidation in Jefferson County show that Oakland and Lake Mills would be best to split from Cambridge, and to instead further cooperating with Jefferson County fire and EMS agencies?

We’re eager to see Jefferson County’s next steps. And we’re eager to see some broader analysis before talk of expanding the Cambridge fire and EMS station moves ahead. Cambridge-area taxpayers deserve some new information before being asked to pay for a fire and EMS station expansion.

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