Proposal for local fire departments to join forces draws heat from firefighters union

Some local fire departments are exploring the possibility of joining forces. The departments of Clayton, Richmond Heights, Maplewood, Brentwood, and Rock Hill could combine some of their top-tier staff.

But not everyone is on board with the idea. The union representing firefighters argues the restructuring will come at the expense of public safety.

“Change is obviously scary, I get that. But this is a tremendous opportunity,” Maplewood Fire Chief Terry Merrell said Friday.

Several departments in the area already share some services and equipment. The new proposal, which emerged from a recent study, calls for a combined command staff serving all five municipalities.

At present, each city’s fire chief manages all fire operations for that municipality.

It is a responsibility that can be taxing, Merrell said.

“I am the Operations Chief. I am the Administrative Chief. I am the EMS Chief. I am the HR Chief. I wear many more hats as the fire chief of this organization. It is really difficult to be the expert in so many different disciplines,” he said.

A combined command staff – not a merger, stressed Merrell – would allow upper management to perform duties and provide more effective leadership.

The union representing firefighters takes a different stance, arguing that the model would create problems on the front lines.

“They’re doing it at the expense of the firefighters in these communities. And candidly, at the expense of their residents,” said Kurt Becker, District Vice President of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2665.

Becker added as quality declines, it will come at a cost to some residents.

“Particularly for cities like Richmond Heights and Clayton. It’s going to take services that their citizens are already paying for and move them into cities, where they have chosen not making that investment,” he said.

Becker said he would like both sides to come to the table to meet. But he said he feels that the union’s interests have been left out of the conversation.

Merrell said quality of service and public safety are the top priorities, and added that there would be no financial burden placed on residents, or municipalities.

“You’re not going to be able to save money from the get-go. There’s the possibility is down the road, you may see some cost avoidance,” Merrell said.

The findings of the study will be presented to the Richmond Heights City Council Monday, July 17.