Editor’s note: This is the final story in a multi-part series reporting on the future of the Ketchum Fire Department.
At some point in 2019, for legal purposes at least, the Ketchum Fire Department may cease to exist.
If the city councils in Ketchum and Sun Valley approve consolidating fire, emergency medical services and police, the Ketchum city government will have to move away from providing those services directly.
The city would establish a contract for services that would ensure they will continue for Ketchum residents who call 911 in an emergency. That contract may be with the city of Sun Valley, or it may be with a new legal entity encompassing public safety agencies in the northern Wood River Valley.
Citizens may not notice the difference, at least at first. The city of Ketchum has had a contract with Blaine County to provide law enforcement services for years, but a resident who calls 911 or sees a Ketchum police vehicle on the street may not know—or care—that the officers are actually county employees.
Public safety consolidation between Ketchum and Sun Valley may provide major benefits by achieving higher levels of service at reduced costs to taxpayers, but it will require the most significant change to fire service in both cities in decades.
It would accomplish something that has been debated and discussed in each city for at least that long. In 1985, the Sun Valley City Council discussed consolidating fire and EMS with Ketchum, but the proposal faltered because of cost considerations and because each city’s policies were too dissimilar. Other, more recent attempts have also failed.
On Feb. 25, residents of both towns are invited to a public meeting at the Limelight Hotel in Ketchum, where they can learn more about the proposal, offer their opinions and review data, as well as a presentation from Sun Valley Public Safety Director Walt Femling. After that, the city councils in Ketchum and Sun Valley will be asked to vote on the proposals, likely in early March.
If the votes pass, the city of Ketchum will have to notify the Blaine County Ambulance District and the Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District in April that it will seek to end their contracts, Femling told a group of firefighters at the Ketchum fire station on Jan. 29.
The city has contracted with the Ambulance District since the late 1980s, while it has had a contract for services with Ketchum Rural since the 1960s.
In December, Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw said the city would dissolve the Fire Department and create a new entity with the city of Sun Valley, if consolidation occurred.
On Jan. 29, Bradshaw told the firefighters that he, Femling and Sun Valley Mayor Peter Hendricks are targeting May or June as the “changeover” date when consolidation would begin to take effect. He said they want the operations running smoothly by the time the busy tourism season begins in early July.
“We’re not going to consolidate unless it leads to a better product,” Bradshaw said. “That product is not strong without you guys. I encourage you to hang in there. We’re going to have a higher level of service across the board.”
If the city of Ketchum achieves consolidation, it could no longer directly provide fire protection and EMS, said John Rathfon, president of Ketchum Professional Firefighters Local 4758, in an interview in January.
“The city has to wash their hands of everything,” Rathfon said. “The city of Ketchum does not provide fire/EMS anymore. You have to get it from somewhere else.”
Rathfon said that on April 1 the union will issue its notification of intent to negotiate a new contract. If consolidation is done correctly, Rathfon said, he would support it.
“Doing it the right way is what we’ve all been talking about,” he said.
Consolidation offers a chance to eliminate administrative duplicity, as well as share costs in acquiring equipment or buying apparatus and in doing maintenance. It would provide both cities with the opportunity to build one joint fire, EMS and police station rather than have separate stations within their boundaries. It could also improve response times and add flexibility in staffing because the consolidated agency would be able to draw from a larger pool of staff members.
Consolidation is an established and, in many circumstances, encouraged practice among fire and EMS agencies across Idaho, as well as nationally, union Vice President Greg Martin said.
“The idea of consolidation is almost hard to argue against,” Martin said. “We have six departments in this county of 20,000 to 25,000 people. The city of Boise has one department.”
Rathfon and Martin said cost savings are more realistic on a long-term basis.
“This thing is not going to save money right now,” Rathfon said. “This process is really hard for the employees. These things don’t happen overnight. This isn’t the private sector. The unknown is difficult. It’s not like we’re a bunch of lost, wandering sheep.”
On Jan. 29, Bradshaw told the firefighters that Femling and Sun Valley Fire Chief Taan Robrahn would be in charge of leading the new agency. Paid-on-call volunteers asked Bradshaw to be included in discussions about consolidation, and he agreed to subsequent meetings with them.
However, he did not agree to include them in the decision-making process on budgets and planning. He said Robrahn is their representative, and he will serve as their voice in those discussions.
“What you’re hearing is discomfort with the uncertainty of the future of paid-on-call volunteers,” said Tom Bowman, a volunteer. “We don’t know what’s going on.”
Bradshaw replied that consolidation would include paid-on-call staff.
“Paid-on-call is going to be hugely important for the new consolidated entity,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is going to be turned away. This new entity will exist.”
However, he was adamant that they would not be “driving the bus” on budget decisions or whether consolidation would occur.
“You have a flaw in your thinking,” one volunteer told Bradshaw. “Watch what happens when we don’t respond the week of Christmas. This group, all the volunteers, if we don’t show up, you don’t have a fire service. You don’t have an EMS.”
Femling asked for their patience, noting that the consolidation process has happened extremely quickly. Hendricks and Bradshaw announced their intention to pursue consolidation last August.
“It’s been at a lightning pace,” Femling told the firefighters. “It has been at an aggressive pace. The mayors didn’t want this to linger.”
Commissioners for the Ketchum Rural Fire District also expressed exasperation with the city of Ketchum during a meeting on Jan. 14.
Ketchum Rural owns two fire stations, two engines, two brush engines and two tankers. The Ketchum Fire Department staffs those stations and apparatus through a contract for service, which paid the city $318,688 in fiscal 2018.
The commissioners reviewed a report from Marcus Kragness, the former interim fire chief of the Ketchum Fire Department. They expressed interest in continuing their contract with a consolidated entity.
They expressed dissatisfaction with some aspects of the city’s management of the Fire Department, including funding. The report stated that the city spends less than 5 percent of its general fund budget on fire and EMS, and primarily relies on Ketchum Rural and the Ambulance District to pay for the Fire Department budget.
They bristled at current and former city officials’ claims that the city has been subsidizing the Ambulance District and Ketchum Rural. The opposite is true, they said.
“They’ve been kicking the can down the road for a long time,” Commissioner Chris Stephens said at the meeting. “Is there going to be a difference in culture now? If they continue with that same culture, that disparity is going to get bigger.”
Commissioner Jed Gray said the city needs to make fire protection a priority in its budget.
“Ketchum Rural … has been damn well run,” Gray said. “We’ve purchased two new engines. We’ve upgraded our equipment. Ketchum has been terribly, terribly remiss in what they’ve done.
“We have no participation in some of the decision-making processes before it’s made. I think everything’s correctable. It’s been askew for at least as long as I’ve been on the team. The city of Ketchum needs to wake up and smell the coffee. They need to spend some money on fire protection.”
Commissioner Earl Engelmann said the district should consider contracting with the city of Sun Valley.
“We should ask for the city of Sun Valley to contract with, regardless of the merger,” Engelmann said. “Ketchum’s going to have to step up to the table.”
However, Femling argued that consolidation will provide a clean slate.
“The way things have been done—now we have a chance to just throw that out,” he said. “We do have an opportunity to change how things are being done. Ketchum really needs to understand they have lacked support of their fire department. It’s really obvious. Neil is trying to get it back.”
On Jan. 29, the volunteers asked what was happening with the Ketchum Rural agreement and if residents understood the ramifications if it unwinds. Kragness wrote that the city’s ISO rating, which is a Class 3, one of the highest possible on the 1-10 scale, would skyrocket.
Bradshaw said he would not allow consolidation to harm the ISO rating, and would work hard to ensure that the relationship with Ketchum Rural would continue through the changes.
“They need someone and we need them,” Bradshaw said of Ketchum Rural. “I have a good relationship with them. It makes me more motivated to see this consolidation go through.”
Blaine County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg wrote in an email that no one from the Ambulance District had been involved in the negotiation over consolidation. He stated that he felt confident that Bradshaw believes the Ambulance District contract provides enough money. Bradshaw’s budget proposal last July reiterated Ketchum’s position that the contract was not covering the city’s full costs of providing services.
“The Ambulance District’s role isn’t affected by consolidation, and the requirements of the contract will remain the same,” Greenberg stated. “In conversations with the ex-interim fire chief and most recently with the mayor, I don’t believe they are of the same opinion as the previous administration concerning the adequacy of the Ambulance District contract.”