Lake Dillon Fire’s merger with Copper Mountain leaves Summit with two fire districts. But will a final merger ever happen?
When Jeff Berino started fighting fires in the 1980s, there were six different fire departments covering northern Summit County.
On Tuesday afternoon, the two that remained, Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue and Copper Mountain Fire, merged into one, marking the next step in a decades-long consolidation of fire services in Summit County.
The newly minted organization, Summit Fire and EMS, will preserve both of the old organizations’ boards of directors and keep their tax bases separate. On the ground, however, SFE will operate as a single emergency-response agency under the direction of a joint fire-authority board.
The move is billed as a way to boost efficiency at both agencies, improve staffing flexibility and save money.
“We get more efficiency each time we grow, and we’re real proud of that,” Berino, Lake Dillon Fire’s chief, said on Tuesday before board members signed the new agreement.
Berino will take over as chief of the new, joint fire authority. Gary Curmode, chief of Copper Mountain Fire, will be taking over as administration chief.
“This was not easy to do, but it was a team effort,” Curmode said. “Now, we have strength in numbers.”
By all accounts, the merger makes perfect sense. Copper Mountain is a small but valuable district, and one that will benefit from Lake Dillon’s larger resources.
But it also raises the question of why the big merger still hasn’t happened with the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District, which is similar in size to Lake Dillon Fire and covers the Breckenridge area.
Talk of such a move, which would bring all of Summit County’s fire services under one organization, dates back decades. But now, it seems more unlikely than ever, in part because of the increasing role fire districts play in emergency medical services.
But that wasn’t always the case. In 2003, former RWB chief Gary Green told the Summit Daily, “Ultimately, there will be one fire department in the county. It might take two years, it might take 10. But it makes sense.”
Lake Dillon Fire’s chief at the time, Francis Winston, was also optimistic.
“I think the turf wars are pretty well gone,” he told the Summit Daily. “Every time we hear about one, we trace it back to something that happened 10 years ago, and those people aren’t even here anymore.”
In 2011, a merger between LDFR and RWB seemed imminent. Fire officials said it was “likely,” and Lake Dillon’s board president at the time, Larry Gilliland, said in a statement that “both organizations recognize the potential benefits of consolidation, and we are optimistic that a single, streamlined fire department, capable of responding to all types of hazards and emergencies, will best serve the public.”
As it turns out, however, merging two large organizations with their own tax bases, boards of directors and prides may be more difficult than once thought.
By 2013, talks broke down over issues of accreditation, capital needs and internal structure. As RWB chief Jim Keating remembers it, outside consultants said a merger wouldn’t save much money, either.
“There wouldn’t be a whole lot of change with coverage,” Keating said. “Everything is strategically deployed and you couldn’t eliminate anything. There really was no advantage to (merging) at all.”
Keating praised the joining of Lake Dillon and Copper, saying it will be a more efficient use of resources. He also said that he would be open to talks of further integrating agencies at some point.
“If in the future it would appear that there would be any financial or operational efficiencies to be gained through consolidation, the issue could certainly be reopened,” Keating said.
In the near-term, however, that seems unlikely, particularly in light of how EMS has transformed fire services in recent years.
Structures fires are now extremely rare, mainly because of the preventive work and education districts have provided. Thus, they have steadily moved into ambulance service, with RWB leading the way.
That recently led to a novel type of turf war, one that fire chiefs of decades past couldn’t have predicted.
It came to a head earlier this year when the Summit County government, which runs its own ambulance service, sought more influence over RWB’s operations in EMS.
The idea was to increase coordination and efficiency, but that turned out to be a matter of perspective. RWB soured on the arrangement, feeling that the county was impinging on its independence.
Specifically, the county objected to RWB’s new Substation 5 in Breckenridge, set to open on Saturday, saying it was unnecessary. It also demanded RWB conduct more out-of-county patient transports, which are time-consuming and unpopular.
That led to a standoff that nearly led the county to strip RWB of its authority to run ambulances, an outcome forestalled, for now, by an eleventh-hour deal in August.
It was an acrimonious back-and-forth riven with misperceptions and money concerns on both sides. It may have also poisoned the well on further consolidation, at least for now.
“The ambulance issue had a lot to do with it, honestly,” Keating said. “Currently, we’re kind of on different levels with (Lake Dillon Fire) with the big issue of the county, which is EMS.”
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