What is in this article?:
- Why Fire Departments Should Consider Public/Private Partnerships
- A Different Kind of Pit Crew
(Appeared in print as "A Way to Stay in the Race")
Working for the fire department traditionally has been seen as a “calling.” The Great Recession and its aftershock now means fire leadership also must think of it as a revenue-generating business that is becoming more dependent on public/private partnerships (PPPs).
What is a PPP? In the paper, “Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships,” scholar E.S. Savas defines it as a relationship involving at least one government unit and private firms to undertake a major civic redevelopment project. Such partnerships can be beneficial, said National Volunteer Fire Council Chairman Philip Stittleburg, noting that the NVFC encourages departments and companies to work together to form mutually beneficial partnerships. Stittleburg pointed to ’s support for local volunteer departments as one example of a successful partnership.
“Departments are struggling to secure the resources and funding to continue to provide the level of protection their communities need,” he said. “Many businesses have the means to help these local departments, and in return, the departments can continue to protect the community and these businesses from emergencies of all kinds.”
Fire-service members often know business leaders in their communities who are supportive of public-safety needs. Stittleburg said chiefs should work within their departments to identify possible connections to pursue and then reach out to companies.
Stittleburg said that chiefs need to explain in a proposal the need for support and how this support will enable the department to enhance its abilities to protect the community. Emphasize the services and protection the department provides to the company and its employees, he encouraged.
“Demonstrate why a partnership would be beneficial to everyone involved,” he said.
It may take a while to find a company that provides the right fit for a partnership, and once found it will take considerable additional time to build and maintain the relationship, Stittleburg said. But he added that it’s worth the time and effort.
“In the end, both the department and the company will be stronger thanks to the successful partnership,” he said.
Prescription for Success
Sometimes PPP opportunities just fall in a department’s lap. In fact, it can be as easy as owning property in the right spot, as evidenced by the recent, mutually beneficial land-swap between CVS and St. Tammany Fire District No. 1 in Slidell, La.
It began two years ago, when the fire district received a telephone call from a local commercial real estate agent. The agent asked Chief Larry Hess whether the fire district would be willing to sell Station No. 17 at the corner of two intersections, one of eight stations utilized by the department, which has 144 career firefighters and responds to about 7,000 emergency calls annually.
The local real-estate broker said that CVS wanted to buy the land to erect a new store, Hess said. This was the first PPP the district had conducted, so his first step after the call was to inform the chairman of its board of commissioners, Calvin Kline, who gave the OK to investigate the proposal.
Kline said that CVS wanted to purchase an entire parcel of land that happened to have a fire station on it because of its location. In return, the company would purchase land in another area and build a new fire station for the district. A land-swap deal is what they had in mind, he said.
“We said, ‘Absolutely. Let’s move forward,’” Kline said.
However, there was one caveat: Because this was the district’s first attempt at negotiating a partnership with a company the size of CVS, Kline emphasized the importance of ensuring that the city got an equitable deal.
Hess next recruited the chief of administration — who had a construction background and understood the process, from building plans to material costs — to oversee the details. Then, he approached the attorney general’s office to make sure that the agreement met Louisiana state law.
“If a fire department is going to do this, make sure to involve the legal counsel that has some expertise in property transactions,” Kline said. “We had very good attorneys.”
Next, the team worked to draft a to-do list, which included compliance with the Sunshine Act, a federal law enacted in 1976 that provides — with 10 specified exemptions — that “every portion of every meeting of an agency shall be open to public observation.”
It was like sitting in a semester of law school, Hess joked — noting that it took months to complete the legal part of the process.
Of course, there was political infighting, Hess said. A councilman losing the fire station from his district was upset, while the one getting it was excited. So, a number of public hearings were held and publicized in the print media. He said that the district also published a about the issue on its website.
“We tried to have it as public as we could, so we could assuage, to some degree, any of the concerns from the citizens we were moving away from, so they didn’t feel as though they had lost a high degree of fire or medical protection,” Hess said.
Also on that to-do list was a review of station-location data to determine how the district’s insurance agency (PAIL) rated station distribution. The agency noted a coverage gap in an area that recently was purchased and under development to become an industrial park. Addressing the gap could help improve the rating, Hess said.
Available land near the industrial park also had highway access and would help reduce response times, Kline added.
Land-purchase and construction costs were presented to CVS to see whether the deal was still viable. They agreed that it was, and the city then put out a public notification and asked for public bids for the existing fire house per the Sunshine Act.
“CVS was the only bid,” Kline said.
Both entities then started to develop the contracts, which covered such important aspects as: purchasing land near the industrial park; station design and construction, including a stipulation that the station be built to higher standards to meet hurricane-force winds; and an aggressive timetable that called for completion of the station before the hurricane season, “so the department wasn’t bogged down moving in the middle of their busiest season,” Hess said. A bond also was imposed — if CVS pulls out of the deal, the fire district receives $25,000for its trouble.
“It was just too good a deal to turn down,” Kline said. “And I think CVS knows once they build that store they are going to be in a very good location and get their ROI back. … This has taught us to be receptive to any proposition that comes along from private enterprise.”
The contracts were completed in April and approved by the board of commissioners. The parties agreed that CVS would purchase the property and donate it, in addition to covering the construction costs for the new fire station near the industrial park. In exchange, the city will give the company the old firehouse and the land it sits on.
When all is done, the district will have a new firehouse close to the intersection of three major interstate highways, which will shorten response times for car accidents and other incidents, Hess said.
“Having interstate access is important for us, not only for events on the interstate, but to [enable] real efficient and timely travel to events,” he said. “This new station will be much better located to give us this access.”
Officials on both sides are completing the permitting process with an expectation construction of the new firehouse will be complete by August 2013.