MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The possible future of shared fire department services between Maplewood and South Orange is a credible option following the unanimous agreement by the governing bodies of both towns to award a contract to Manitou Inc. to conduct “an analysis of the operational efficiencies of and the feasibility of consolidation, merger or sharing of South Orange and Maplewood’s municipal fire protection services.”
On July 11, the South Orange Board of Trustees voted unanimously to authorize a resolution awarding a contract to Manitou, and on July 25, the Maplewood Township Committee similarly approved the contract, paving the way for a comprehensive study of the two fire departments.
Manitou, a leading consulting firm that is nationally recognized in the field of fire protection and emergency services organization, administration and planning, has conducted numerous fire service studies, including consolidation and efficiency studies for communities as large as Houston, Texas, and Broward County, Fla.
The award of the contract is the result of a process that began in September 2015, when the South Orange and Maplewood governing bodies adopted companion resolutions authorizing and creating a Joint Exploratory Committee for the purpose of exploring possible efficiencies in the delivery of fire services to their communities through possible shared, consolidated or merged services.
“Shortly after being elected as village president, the Board of Trustees reviewed the operations of all of the departments,” village President Sheena Collum said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “There have been previous discussions with past village presidents about the possibility of having a study done, and this time we were able to move forward with the process.”
Collum said that a committee was formulated with representatives from both towns that could then go back to their respective full governing bodies to make recommendations when the time comes. This committee includes Collum, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, South Orange Trustee Howard Levison, Maplewood Committeeman Marlon K. Brownlee, South Orange Village Administrator Barry Lewis and Maplewood Township Administrator Joseph Manning.
As a result of the study, the committee hopes to provide the highest quality fire services to the residents of South Orange and Maplewood; to maintain an appropriate level of firefighting personnel and equipment to adequately respond to fire, emergency and hazardous incidents in South Orange and Maplewood; and to achieve economic and operational efficiencies.
The Joint Committee eventually recommended the solicitation of competitive bids from qualified firms that ultimately resulted in the selection of Manitou to conduct the study. The total contract amount is not to exceed $47,513.00, which will be split equally by the two towns.
The study, which will include on-site investigations, department interviews, reviews of departmental data and stakeholder input, will evaluate the current independent operations of the two departments for efficiencies and opportunities to improve services and control or reduce costs, through possible sharing of equipment, personnel or services, or through the possible consolidation or merger of operations. The towns expect the study to be under way within the next month and it is anticipated that the entire study and final report will be completed within six months or less.
“This process will be inclusive of stakeholder interview and many community forums to discuss the results,” Collum said. “There is an opportunity here to look at shared efficiencies in the way we provide service to the two towns.
“Even if the end result is that we don’t merge, it can highlight best practices on how each town can improve individual operations,” she continued. “Both governing bodies are working in good faith that we will complete the study and do what is in the best interest of the citizens for both towns.”
DeLuca echoed Collum’s sentiments, reminding residents that the discussion of sharing fire services is one that has been broached in the past, then abandoned.
“An effort was made many years ago to really look into this, and then recently six or seven years ago, but I think this is the first time that both towns are really in a position to sit down and do this,” DeLuca said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “Things have changed; both towns are on the same dispatch service and we weren’t in the past. Some of the practices for both towns are similar now and a few years ago they weren’t and now we’re bringing on an outside consultant to see how this might work.
“This is not an easy thing to do: two different towns, two different municipalities, two different cultures, one department is civil service the other is not. I think now we have learned some things from the past and we’re in a better position to learn about making some changes than we were a few years ago.”
DeLuca said that the goal here is not to reduce costs by reducing services, but rather to take a look at how operations can run more effectively for both towns, whether or not that results in a merger.
“This is a process with many steps, and the study is just that: a step. We will use that as a basis to have a lot of conversations. I think it’s a very positive step, but it is just a step,” he said. “We have a lot more to do with the firefighters, the governing bodies and the citizens to make sure everyone is comfortable with any decisions made. We will make sure we are asking all the right questions of Manitou Incorporated, and that whatever they come back with, we will study very hard and include the community in the conversations. We will have a lot of input from folks and everyone will feel as comfortable as possible in any decision that we make.”