The committee exploring shared services for Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge is studying a proposal for a Tri-Town Shared Fire Command that would unify fire department operations under a joint town manager and fire chief.
The draft of a command system was presented on Tuesday by Lenox Fire Chief Daniel Clifford at a public meeting of the Administrative Review Committee that meets monthly at Lee Town Hall.
Stockbridge Selectman Stephen Shatz had asked Clifford to present a scenario with a proposed command structure and organizational chart. A financial model is in progress.
It was an informal meeting, said Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen, since several committee members from Lee and Lenox were unable to attend. But all three towns were represented by town administrators or Select Board members. Lee Fire Chief Alan Sparks, who is planning to retire, also attended, along with two of his volunteers.
In an Eagle interview on Wednesday, Clifford emphasized that the discussion is preliminary, involves many moving parts and, if a joint command were adopted, the goal would be efficiency rather than immediate budget savings.
"It's doable, but there will be growing pains for sure if they go through with this," said Clifford, who pointed out that his role was limited to supplying information for the committee discussion. "It could work, but I'm not advocating one way or another."
The draft proposal assumes a joint town manager or administrator to serve the three towns. In Stockbridge, Town Administrator Jorja-Ann P. Marsden is retiring in mid-July, while Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason, whose contract expires in June 2017, is planning to step down.
"It would be very difficult to run a shared services department without having a single administrator to report to," Shatz pointed out at Wednesday's meeting of the Stockbridge Select Board. "If they had to report to three different administrators, it would be chaotic."
"It's clear from other experiences throughout the state that the only way that this will work is with the full support of the three communities that are involved," Shatz said. "You can't impose this from the top down. It's a public education process."
Clifford also pointed out that for the proposal to go anywhere, it would require public buy-in.
"We're 'old Yankees' in our thoughts," he said. "The towns don't want to lose their identity. I think when it comes to change, there's a lot of that mindset; we're slow sometimes. This would be a culture shock; there would be anxieties and growing pains. It could work, but right now it's a work in progress. It won't be easily done."
Under the scenario presented by the Lenox chief, a tri-town fire chief and a deputy chief of operations serving the three communities would report to a joint town manager.
Each town would maintain its own fire department budget, Clifford stated, and would share administrative duties and inspections.
In the future, he suggested, a tri-town fire district could be created, though the shared services concept could be achieved through another cooperative agreement.
Several outlying fire stations such as New Lenox, Lenox Dale and Interlaken in Stockbridge would be maintained, though the South Lee station could be relocated to serve East Lee, Clifford said, since South Lee is very close to the central fire station in Stockbridge.
Clifford made it clear that he doesn't support a joint public safety complex at this time, because it would take too long to muster volunteers who serve alongside the full-time paid firefighters and then send them back from a central fire station to the scene of a fire or other emergency.
According to Shatz,there could be a one-year test drive of the shared fire command system "to see how well it works in terms of staffing and services." The starting date of the trial run would depend on approval by all three towns, he pointed out.
"The goal is to try to initiate the shared fire effort sometime in the 2016 calendar year," Shatz said. "That pre-supposes you also do a shared administrator for all three towns this year. There's no question that it's ambitious."
Whether voter approval in the three towns would be required remains unclear, he noted.
Clifford, who has been the fire chief in Lenox since 1998, focused on efforts to improve inspection services, enhance fire prevention and training for the department, and equipment evaluation for all three towns.
"If this goes through, whoever is leading the fire departments is going to face a new challenge because everybody does things differently," he said, citing differing software, approaches and philosophies. "We're all enforcing the same codes, but people interpret things a bit differently."
Lee will need a 24-hour paramedic soon, he noted. Lenox has two on duty around the clock. "It makes sense to cross-train firefighters and EMTs," he said.
"The towns are doing their due diligence," he said, "and a good job collecting and evaluating information to see what's in the best interest of their communities."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
At a glance ...
The tri-town committee exploring shared services for Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge has opened preliminary discussion of a possible Tri-Town Shared Fire Command. Among the highlights:
Goals: To improve efficiency, coordinate inspection services, increase paramedic services, evaluate equipment, enhance fire prevention and personnel training.
Budget: Details are to be worked out, but no immediate savings are expected.
Structure: A joint fire chief and deputy chief of operations serving the three communities would report to a joint town manager or administrator.
Timing: A one-year trial run could begin later this year if all three towns approve the arrangement.
Fire stations: Each town would retain its central station and most outlying satellite stations.
Next step: Further discussion of a possible town manager to serve all three communities is slated for the next monthly meeting of the Tri-Town Administrative Review Committee at 8 a.m. April 12 in Lee Town Hall. Four state Department of Revenue specialists may be on hand for advice and guidance. The meeting is posted and open to the public.