Public Policy Forum Blog

Fire Department Consolidation Has Improved Service and Reduced Costs in Milwaukee County's North Shore

At the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council's "Shared Services and Cooperation Work Group" – formed at the suggestion of the Forum and the Greater Milwaukee Committee in the spring of 2011 – participants focused on service sharing examples that already were taking place among municipal governments in Milwaukee County.  That list grew to more than 30, but the one that virtually all of the municipal leaders in the room pointed to as the shining example of intergovernmental cooperation was the North Shore Fire Department (NSFD).

Created on January 1, 1995, the NSFD not only has been cited locally, but it also has received statewide and national attention as one of the foremost examples of successful intergovernmental consolidation.

But what do we really know about the success of the NSFD?  Have substantial dollars truly been saved and is the provision of fire and emergency medical services (EMS) markedly better than it otherwise would have been?

In a report released this morning, the Forum seeks to answer those questions.  We explore both the operations and finances of the NSFD, and consider what fire and EMS services in Milwaukee County's North Shore might look like and cost today if consolidation had never happened.  In addition to providing a framework to assess the department’s success on the 20th anniversary of its creation, the analysis is intended to provide insight into the merits of possible replication in other regions.     

We begin by providing basic background on the factors that led to the NSFD’s creation.  Next, we consider the demographic and economic shifts that occurred in the North Shore during the past 20 years, as well as changes in demand for services.  With that information as context, we then compare pre-consolidation levels of service and costs with today's, and explore what each North Shore municipality might have been paying for similar levels of service if consolidation had not occurred. 

Overall, we observe that despite deploying fewer resources today, the NSFD is providing a higher level of service.  Not only is the department’s capacity to provide EMS far more advanced, but it also has achieved a substantially higher ‘ISO’ rating for its firefighting capability than any of the individual departments maintained prior to consolidation.

The report also contains a detailed analysis of the financial impacts of fire department consolidation in the North Shore.  That analysis yields the following insights:

  • Four of the seven North Shore municipalities currently are paying less to the NSFD for fire and EMS services than they would have paid if consolidation had not occurred and their 1993 expenditures simply had increased at the rate of inflation.  Collectively, the savings are nearly $1.1 million annually.
  • When expenditure amounts were adjusted to also reflect a level of service for each municipality that is associated with a full-time, fully professional fire department, the analysis found that each of the North Shore municipalities is experiencing operating savings, and that for five of the seven, the savings are exceeding $250,000 annually.  The analysis estimates that collectively, the North Shore municipalities would be paying about $2.8 million more annually for an equivalent level of service had they not consolidated.
  • On the capital side, the report projects that if each municipality had replaced vehicles owned prior to consolidation with new vehicles per existing replacement schedules, then collectively they would have spent up to $3.4 million more than the NSFD actually spent on vehicle purchases in the 20 years following consolidation.  Savings for individual municipalities ranged from $199,000 for Whitefish Bay to $739,000 for Bayside.

These findings and observations prompt us to wonder why we have not seen greater interest in consolidation of fire and rescue services in other parts of Milwaukee County.  In particular, we have found potential for substantial savings and service enhancements in previous fire department consolidation studies we conducted for the South Shore communities and for the five additional municipalities south of I-94, but no action has been taken.  

Several leaders from Waukesha County recently announced their interest in considering fire department consolidation.  We hope that effort – combined with our new findings about the success of the NSFD – will renew interest in exploring fire department consolidation and other service sharing throughout our region. 

The full report – which was commissioned by the North Shore Fire/Rescue Foundation – can be found here, and our media release here.

Rob Henken