Board members for the Oran and New Hamburg fire protection districts, area firefighters and officers, and concerned citizens gathered at the January Scott County Rural Fire Protection's board meeting to discuss the possibility of consolidating districts.
Presently, there are five fire protection districts in the county: Scott Rural, New Hamburg-Benton-Commerce, Oran, Scott-New Madrid-Mississippi County, and Sikeston Rural.
"The concept has been informally discussed for years but this is the first formal inter-district discussion," said Joel Evans, county developer and Scott Rural board member.
Oran Fire Chief Jimmy Watkins presented the group with information about opportunities and challenges associated with a possible consolidation.
Potential advantages include improved economy of scale for purchasing, standardization of equipment for inter-department operability, improvements in efficiency and safety through standardized training and procedures and elimination of redundancy.
Additionally, federal and state grants are shifting toward the regionalization concept.
This consolidation would produce a more politically powerful district with over 70 firefighters.
Service areas could be shifted to provide more consistent coverage throughout the service area and could eventually lead to full-time personnel. While volunteers will always make up the core of departments, a staff person could aid in training, maintenance, grant writing and could improve response times.
One of the most important goals of each of the boards is reducing ISO ratings for rural areas.
Oran Fire Protection District, for example, has been very aggressive in decreasing its ISO rating allowing for lower fire insurance premiums for its residents.
Watkins said he believes a consolidated district could offer lower ISO ratings across the county eventually.
The challenges faced by the districts include the potential for a loss of identity. Volunteer firefighters are a fraternal bunch: they work with their friends, neighbors and relatives to serve other friends, neighbors and relatives, Evans noted. An enlarged district could weaken the tie between the service and those served.
One of the biggest obstacles is the differing tax rates among the entities.
Oran's residents pay 40 cents per $100 assessed valuation while Scott County Rural's residents pay only 30 cents. Missouri statues would require a single rate for a consolidated district.
Officials questioned whether a tax rate increase would be acceptable for the those within districts that presently have lower rates or if a consolidated district could survive on the lower rate if it was selected.
"I'm confident the details can be hammered out when the time comes. As board members, we will now go back to our firefighters and the residents of the districts to gauge their interest in pursuing this further," Evans said. "The firefighters of these districts have a history of working well together and I feel consolidation could lead to improved service throughout the county."
Evans added: "If nothing else comes from the meeting, it was a good opportunity for the members of the boards to meet. We serve similar functions and have similar challenges."
County fire district officials would also like to discuss plans with the other fire districts and municipal and community fire departments in the county. A meeting to further discuss the topic is scheduled for 7 p.m. April 12 at the NBC Fire Station near Benton.