St. Tammany fire chiefs consider consolidation proposal

Published: Aug. 5, 2013 at 9:30 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 12, 2013 at 9:48 PM CDT
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North Shore fire chiefs are weighing in on a draft study that calls for consolidation of districts and training. The goal is to speed response times, lower costs, and insurance rates, but some say the early findings are flawed.

It's been over a year since St. Tammany firefighters responded to the blaze that destroyed the old LA Grill restaurant on North Causeway. That fire was handled by Mandeville-based District 4, which has the lowest fire insurance rates of St. Tammany's 13 fire districts.

"Mandeville has the lowest rating, they do an incredible job in training, but they got the tax base to support that," said Scott Brewer with St. Tammany Fire District 9.

Other districts aren't so lucky. Average response times can vary by as much as three minutes depending on where you live, and a draft study done by James Hartman and Associates shows wide fire rating disparities across St. Tammany.

Unlike Mandeville's District 4 which has 100 paid firefighters, Bush's District 9 has just six paid firefighters and equipment donated from across the country.

"This truck was paid for by volunteers buying from state surplus for $4000," said Brewer.

Size is also a factor. Some St. Tammany districts are as large as 180 square miles, others as small as 30.

The study proposes a number of possible improvements, including a phase-in plan to eventually whittle down St. Tammany's 13 districts to three.  The study also calls for standardized legal services, training, and centralized purchasing.

Some say the expansive study came out too early and was never meant to go public so soon. Chief Brewer agrees, saying there's still much work to do.

"There could have been more information from the fire department's point of view. The numbers could have been more accurate," Brewer tells FOX 8.

There's also criticism from some chiefs, who didn't want to go on the record, of study author James Hartman. He works for a number of St. Tammany politicians, as well as Fire District 12, as a media consultant.

Brewer counters that saying, "'I've known him for years, he's a fair and honorable person."

Even critics say there's plenty of room for improvement, and they plan to work through the process to bring changes to help St. Tammany fire protection.

The study is now being fine tuned, and could be made official as early as next week. Hartman and Associates conducted the lengthy study for the parish council for $40,000, after a public bid process.