After years of interdepartmental conflict, the Wood River Valley’s fire departments are aiming to put aside their differences in the name of public safety.
Ketchum Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin on Tuesday asked the City Council to give him official approval to engage in the early stages of talks to unite Blaine County’s five separate fire-fighting entities.
“We have, to be frank, a little bit of a dysfunctional system in this county,” McLaughlin said. “Our fire departments are competing instead of cooperating—and that needs to get fixed no matter how we move forward.”
The mayor and council members were in unanimous support of the pursuit.
“I’m fully supportive of this,” Councilwoman Amanda Breen said. “I have heard it so many times over the years: ‘Why do we have so many fire departments?’”
Councilwoman Courtney Hamilton concurred.
“This has been talked about for a long time,” she said. “It makes sense for so many reasons.”
McLaughlin said the following fire departments are welcome to join discussions: North Blaine County, Sun Valley, Wood River Fire and Rescue, Hailey, Bellevue, Carey and West Magic. Most of them are going before a leadership panel of some sort to ask for permission, like Ketchum did Tuesday.
McLaughlin said that this is not the first time consolidation efforts have come up—far from it. He said that it was most recently talked about—but not considered as seriously as this—in 2019, when he was hired and both the Hailey and Wood River positions were vacant.
“We need to start the beginning stages of talks now, so next time that a chief retires we are ready to [consolidate],” he said.
McLaughlin also mentioned a 2005 study paid for by Blaine County that determined the fire stations should be consolidated for the sake of efficiency.
Unification would also improve safety, according to McLaughlin. He said that with more efficient spending, the fire stations could afford to hire a full-time fire training officer.
The effort comes at a pivotal time for Ketchum. McLaughlin said that last year, the city set a record for the number of calls, and the pace isn’t slowing down. This year, compared to last, is up 29% thus far.
Councilman Jim Slanetz pointed out the money that could be saved by consolidating departments. He remembers the city being close to getting a deal done before, but said this time seems different.
“We spend too much money on redundancy,” he said.
McLaughlin said the Wood River Fire and Rescue department—which serves the unincorporated areas of southern Blaine County and assists in other calls—has its own issues with money right now, operating at a deficit. McLaughlin said the department could probably last another three years before it runs out of funds. He said he has been in contact with Chief Ron Bateman about this, and they looked at a couple of options.
One possibility is a mill levy, a property tax used by local governments and other jurisdictions to raise revenue to cover annual expenses.
“We’re really skeptical that a mill levy to increase ambulance funding would pass right now,” McLaughlin said.
The other option, McLaughlin said, is for the Blaine County Ambulance District—an ex-officio sub-board of the Blaine County Board of Commissioners—to cut funding to Wood River Fire and Rescue, as well as some other smaller agencies.
The chief summed up the current issue this way: “It’s a lot harder to run five one-station fire departments than one five-station fire department,” he said.
The rivalries between fire departments in Blaine County is an open secret, Councilman Michael David said, but the Ketchum City Council is excited to try to push past that.
“I think we tiptoe around the competitive nature of the departments,” he said. “There’s no question that when there is an event everyone comes together. But outside of that, [it’s competitive].” ￼
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A thousand apologies to Fire Chief Greg Beaver and the firefighters of Bellevue Fire. Please pardon my senior moment.
There are NINE fire agencies in Blaine County.
To quote a former Ketchum Fire Chief: " When we have a real working fire, we need EVERY firefighter in the county".
It's hilarious to see these five Ketchum elected officials talk about the need for consolidation. They are the group that literally killed the last effort.
But, par for the course. In October 2018, they killed meaningful rental unit regulations in WS...now they fumble around housing.
Thank you Chief McLaughlin for being honest about the dysfunction in the system. Those of us who have been interested in consolidation have known this for decades.
Why do we have to wait for fire cheifs to retire? If we wait for this unknown event, then we will continue to fund (as a community) X number of cheifs at X dollars. If we consolidate now...couldn't each existing cheif be a battalion cheif under the new structure? There is a way to do this. I am sure you can figure it out. No need to fire anyone. And the cost will still be X. Although there might be savings in other areas.
Let's this done and quit making excuses for why it can't be done. This waiting for retirements thing is saying that you value someone's job title more than you value public safety. Let's put the public first in public safety.
Gotta spike that pension. Higher end of career salaries to bump pension calculations are an implied part of the career trajectory for government work as part of the overall compensation.
There are 8 Fire Departments not 5 as stated:
North Blaine County (the old Ketchum Rural)
Wood River Fire and Rescue
Blaine County is the only county in southern Idaho (via the Blaine County Ambulance District) to contract with multiple fire agencies to provide ambulance services. Ada, Canyon, Elmore, Jerome, Gooding, Lincoln, Camas, and Twin Falls counties have EMS (ambulance service) separate from Fire.
Blaine County Ambulance District needs to develop a request for proposal for a single separate entity for EMS in Blaine County.
The overwhelming number of Non-police 911 calls in Blaine County are for EMS.
The public around the country has demanded that their Fire Departments provide the highest level of Paramedic services to treat their families and public. Since the 70's, when the TV show Emergency showcased the innovative and very effective concept of bringing pre-hosptial care directly to the patient, communities have demanded that their citizens deserve the same.
Dual role Fire Department employees who already function and already respond to medical emergencies is not only cost effective but leverages the fact that you already have a highly trained response working a 24 hour shift, in centralized locations. They are force multipliers. Providing top level Emergency Medical Care to citizens is no longer a nice to have option.
Like the benefits of not duplicating 8 fire chiefs, (and Admin staff, mechanics, supply,training, etc), having a dual role fire department employees gives them one more tool in the toolbox to make a difference in people's when minutes can mean the difference for a chance for successful recovery or more dire outcomes.
I welcome efforts to create a County Fire Department and provide continued high levels of trained Emergency Medical, Fire, Rescue response and service to Blaine County citizens. It's a positive step forward.
Just forget about Bellevue apperciate it as always.
The fire dept isn't the only dysfunctional system in this Valley..
Care to elaborate?
Perry, the disparity in the taxing levys is the deal breaker…
Evan is correct that the levy rates are quite different.
Recall....North Blaine County Fire is a seperate taxing district (just like the school district). The North Blaine County Fire District extends from north of Hailey to just south of Ketchum and then north of Ketchum to just south of Stanley. It is the non-incorporated land of northern Blaine County.
Wood River Fire Protection District serves the southern part of the rural county.
The levy rates for each for 2022 are:
North Blaine County Fire: 0.000117751
Wood River Fire Protection District: 0.000603035
Yes, Wood River is five times more. There are good reasons for that. The tax base is not as large as the north county. And there is quite a bit of territory to cover.
Sun Valley, Hailey and Bellevue have fire departments that are paid for through the city budget. When I looked recently at the 2023 budgets for each, Hailey's budget for fire (I guess it was approved) came out to be more expensive (probably for the first time ever) than Wood River Fire Protection District. I am calculating that WRFPD residents are paying about $60 per $100,000 and Hailey is paying about $69 per $100, 000 of assessed value. Bellevue looks like about $55 per $100,000. If anyone thinks these numbers are off, please chime in. I have not calculated SV.
I can't imagine any resident of North Blaine County welcoming a consolidation if their fire district taxes will go up. So, I am really curious if there is a way to consolidate the districts and have different levy rates for different areas in the consolidated district. Does anyone know if this is possible? It seems like all residents in a consolidated district would have to pay the same levy rate. But perhaps the Idaho Code has some sort of exception, when it is for the greater good. Any input on this would be helpful.
I watched the ambulance district meeting online recently and I think it was Cheif McLaughlin who said that the levy rates were a challenge and that he was crunching some numbers. It would be good if you could share your numbers and thoughts on the disparity of levy rates. May as well get this elephant right square on the table instead of springing it on the public at some future date when we are deeper into consolidation discussions.
I have been a proponent of consolidation for a very long time. I would love to see the entire valley consolidated. Is there a way to do it?
OOPs, I forgot Ketchum. Sorry about that. Maybe someone knows Ketchum's budget (with bond) and cost per $100,000 of assessed value?
Welcome to the discussion.