Northern Door Fire District Conversation Continues

Three for, two against. That’s the breakdown of where the Northern Door fire chiefs stand on the issue of creating a Northern Door Fire District heading into the next discussion of the concept on May 29 at the Gibraltar Fire Department.

Earlier this year, officials from Liberty Grove, Sister Bay, Gibraltar, Baileys Harbor, Jacksonport, Egg Harbor, and Ephraim met and talked the shared district concept over with the intention of taking the idea back to the town level for discussion. At the next meeting, those communities will decide whether or not they want to continue in the group conversation moving forward.

Egg Harbor Fire Chief Steve Schopf will definitely be one of those moving forward with the discussion. Schopf has been one of the major proponents of creating a shared Northern Door department and a presenter at previous meetings on the topic. In his eyes, merging departments would create a number of advantages, the biggest of which would be streamlined administration.

“If this happens, we’d have a full-time chief or administrator,” Schopf says. “The workload of the chiefs is getting so heavy now that it’s hard to do as a volunteer in a couple of hours.”

Greg Swain, who works as a firefighter and Emergency Medical Responder with the Gibraltar Fire Department, agrees that the administrative aspect has been taking a toll on the volunteer departments, and that the district would be a way of relieving some pressure.

“The business and operation of running a fire department is becoming increasingly stressful. Many hours – more than people realize – are being put into the administrative side of things, everything from ordering vehicles down to ordering photocopy paper,” he says. “And these things are being replicated every five miles.”

But while administration is a key issue, it’s not the only benefit that those in favor of the shared district see. A Northern Door Fire District would also result in a consistent training program for all firefighters throughout the area, says Schopf, which would make assigning tasks easier at fires where multiple departments respond.

“Say I get members coming from another department,” he says. “I have no idea right now what level they’re trained at. I could be giving a guy a job he’s not trained to do. And some say no and don’t do it, but more of them just do it anyways.”

The shared department could also allow for a reduction in duplicate equipment between each township, which proponents say would save the Northern Door departments money in the long run. When exactly that savings would be realized, however, no one is quite sure yet, and the cost to taxpayers for fire protection will most likely go up initially if a shared department is created – a result of the administrative costs of creating the district and the salary of the new full-time fire chief.

That’s the major dealbreaker for Brian Zak, who is the chief of the Baileys Harbor Fire Department.

“Nobody’s proven that there’s any cost savings at all. If anything taxes are going to go up,” says Zak.

In the model district the chiefs were shown earlier this year, according to Zak, 75 percent of the cost for establishing and maintaining the Lake Country Fire Department was recouped from emergency calls. The model district differs in one key aspect from what would be established in Northern Door.

“That money also came from EMS, which is run through the county here, not fire departments,” says Zak. “We’re not going to be recouping any of that.”

While Zak agrees that the administrative concerns of those proposing the fire district are worth addressing, he feels that the cost is probably not worth it. He also feels that the shared district won’t address the primary concern facing many Northern Door departments, which is a lack of volunteers.

“There’s not a question that we need more volunteers,” admits Swain. “We need to get the word out to people and tell them…it’s an enjoyable experience. The district won’t solve that problem.”

Tom Ash, the chief at Jacksonport, agrees with Zak that the district isn’t worth pursuing.

“The downside of a shared district is that it will cost our town more money,” says Ash. “We operate on a fairly low budget in Jacksonport. There’s no formula that says there will be a reduced cost to Jacksonport. I don’t see how any municipality will save money.”

In addition, Ash is fearful of the loss of local control that would come with the creation of a shared district.

Ash and Zak would like to continue to work with other departments through the mutual aid agreements that are already in place, and possibly even enhance those agreements, but they don’t see their departments joining a Northern Door fire district anytime in the near future.

Proponents of the district, such as Sister Bay/Liberty Grove and Gibraltar Fire Chief Chris Hecht, are willing to acknowledge that there are drawbacks to the idea, but they feel that the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

“There are always going to be drawbacks,” says Hecht. “There will be less direct control by municipalities, and it will be a bigger governmental process. I’d be remiss to say it’s all positive. But have I spent a lot of time focusing on the negatives? No. Because I think it’s a positive idea.”

And when it comes to money, Steve Schopf says that it would be unwise to back out of the idea now, before the municipalities even know what the cost of creating and maintaining a fire district would even be.

“Nobody knows what the costs are going to be. We still have to formulate exactly how the costs will be worked out, and there’s yet to be any costs put to anything,” he says.

Hecht and Schopf are joined by Niles Weborg, the Ephraim fire chief, in support of the idea. At their May 14 meeting, the Ephraim Board of Trustees began to look into the idea of forming a focus group to discuss financing and other issues related to creating the shared district.

According to Jane Olson, who is a village trustee and chair of the Community Protection Committee for Ephraim, the board is in favor of the district so far, although it would reevaluate its position if the cost to taxpayers was too high.

Any eventual district that is created does not need to include every fire department in Northern Door, but could be a combination of any of the departments. And regardless of whether or not individual departments actually choose to continue with the discussion they won’t be left out in the cold, says Olson.

“If you’re participating, everyone understands that you can pull out later and things can continue,” she says. “That fire department won’t be isolated.”

Zak says that while he’s not interested in joining up now, he’s definitely still interested in being a part of the discussion.

“I see this eventually happening maybe 10 years down the road,” he says. “Obviously we have to be involved if it does happen. Right now, I don’t think it’s our time to jump in, but we want to be involved and make sure we have an equal say in setting it up.”

No concrete action towards establishing the district is expected to take place at the May 29 meeting. Rather, each department is expected to bring statistics of the numbers of calls they receive and the costs related to their fire protection. Then each municipality will voice exactly how involved it wants to be going forward. From there, the issue will be sent to the governing bodies of each community for further discussion.

“It’s in our elected officials hands now,” says Schopf. “They have to work on an agreement and financing. Most of the footwork is done as far as it’s going to help.”