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Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Ron Bateman has been given the green light to create a proposal alongside Hailey Fire Chief Mike Baledge for consolidation of both departments into a single agency, a subject that as been on and off the table for over two decades.

The go-ahead followed a presentation Wednesday by Bateman to the joint powers board describing the successful consolidation that occurred at Bateman’s former districts in Colorado.

“It’s time, it’s just time,” Hailey Mayor Martha Burke told the crowd following the presentation at Hailey’s City Council chamber.

The room was crammed with paid on-call and career firefighters listening to the presentation, which focused on Bateman’s success in creating one agency from two in Johnstown and Milliken, Colo., two towns 2 miles apart that had different resources, different budgetary constraints and different motivations that ultimately led to the successful consolidation and forming of a new agency, Front Range Fire Rescue, in January 2018.

The presentation was requested by joint powers board member Tim East, during the board’s Nov. 13 meeting. It was the first step that could eventually lead to consolidation of both agencies.

Before Bateman’s presentation, Hailey Fire Department firefighter Jeremy Lange read a letter of support signed by 19 Hailey firefighters, detailing the “strong support” for further consolidation of both entities “in the best interest of the communities we serve.” The letter was also reflective of the crowd: about 30 people present to see what the future of south valley firefighting could look like.

In an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express on Thursday morning, Bateman said that with the OK given by the joint fire board the night before, he will begin working with Baledge to come up with a working plan of how to move forward with a proposal for consolidation. Bateman said that would likely look similar to what he did in Colorado, forming different working groups to consider different aspects of consolidation. That may include a group looking at combining legal entities, another to create a new identity and logo and possibly a group solely to represent volunteer firefighters and identify their needs and wants.

As of Thursday, Bateman had not been in communication with Bellevue Fire Chief Greg Beaver about consolidation, but said he would do so at the direction of the joint fire board. Both Wood River and Hailey have a good working relationship with Bellevue, according to Bateman, attending joint training sessions and responding to calls. Bateman said it would be a worthwhile discussion to have, considering that a previous study conducted to assess the options for consolidation in 2010 included all three agencies.

“Bellevue’s doing great stuff,” he said.

Bateman said there will be something to present to the joint powers board at its next meeting in May.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Baledge told the crowd following the presentation. “I think it’s very doable and I think it’s time.”

Issue has long history

For many, it’s been time for a while now.

“Hailey and Blaine County need to consolidate their fire-fighting services. … A more efficient system in the south county could provide better fire service for everyone,” an Idaho Mountain Express editorial stated on March 17, 1993.

The subject of consolidation came back to the forefront in 2006, when the city of Hailey failed to get a $2.3 million bond request passed by voters for a new fire station. According to a May 2, 2007, story in the Express, “Some thought the bond fell at the hands of two camps, those who believe the city doesn’t require a change in the level of fire protection service and those who believe Hailey should look further into consolidating with another department before undertaking such a financial commitment.”

In 2007, the Ketchum Fire Department and Ketchum Rural Fire District exemplified a successful merging of resources, having maintained a contractual agreement for shared services, equipment and housing for firefighters since 1957. That contract was terminated in March of last year, with the rural agency citing the city’s inability to increase funding, along with myriad other unresolved issues. In May, Sun Valley struck a deal with Ketchum Rural, approving a $300,000 contract for services and dissolving 60-plus years of shared services between Ketchum and Ketchum Rural.

Bateman’s made clear during his presentation that consolidation will be a challenge but is doable if all parties want to see it come to fruition.

“There will be bumps in the road,” he acknowledged, “[but] if you want to be in a relationship together, you’ll find a way.”

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