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Littleton Fire Rescue, Littleton's city fire department, may soon be no more, after its partners — Littleton Fire Protection District and Highlands Ranch Metro District — announced they are severing ties with the city and joining South Metro Fire Rescue, a large district that covers much of the south metro area. The city recently announced that it will enter into negotiations to join South Metro as well, a move that would create the state's second-largest fire protection agency.
We talked to South Metro's Chief Bob Baker about what unification will look like.
Why should Littleton and its fire partners join with South Metro?
South Metro, as well as Littleton Fire Protection District, Highlands Ranch Metro District, Littleton Fire Rescue, Cunningham Fire District and even Castle Rock had been contemplating the idea of a consolidated fire department since the mid-1990s. There have been four or five studies on the efficacy of combining our fire departments that go back more than 20 years. Many times, the consultants have said unification makes sense, but the timing was never right. About a year or so ago, the fire chiefs from Littleton Fire Rescue, Cunningham, and myself met with the presidents of our labor organizations and began discussions about combining fire departments.
This has been a grassroots effort. We would not do this if it were not the right thing to do. We said it has to improve service to our citizens, improve safety for our personnel, be the most cost-effective model, and be sustainable into the foreseeable future. We worked really hard to evaluate the efficacy of combining our organizations, and we feel very confident it will do all those things.
What challenges does South Metro face?
The Denver metro area is doing very well economically. We're adding more people to the state every minute. Our challenges are similar to others in the area: Traffic congestion is one. Another is the Gallagher Amendment, which reduces the mill levy assessment for residential properties. That has a direct impact on our budget. Hiring paramedics is another — there are only so many, and everybody wants them.
With regards to unification, some of the immediate challenges are the inclusion elections for citizens in Highlands Ranch and in the LFPD. Those take place in May. We'll be asking the electorate to vote to include themselves in South Metro.
The organization, if it's fully unified, would serve half a million people over 285 square miles, with a budget north of $100 million, not to mention hundreds of employees. One of our challenges will be to maintain the culture that has made us an exceptional fire department, which is taking care of our citizens like family members.
We don't want to lose that as and just become a large organization providing a service. South Metro employs about 450 people, and we'll be adding hundreds. Integrating those personnel into our organization and making sure we have a shared culture will require reconciling operating guidelines and policies and procedures.
LFR is 190 people, and Cunningham adds 70 people. We'd also be building another fire station and adding another 25 or so people to that, and we may have more administrative personnel.
What will it mean for South Metro to absorb these new departments?
We're pretty used to change, because we've done this in the past. South Metro is an amalgamation of several other organizations. This isn't our first rodeo. What it means is the challenge of integrating the new personnel into the organization and developing an operational model that best serves the whole of the community.
We'll be the second-largest fire department in Colorado. The next largest would be Colorado Springs, and we'd be significantly larger than them. Also, Colorado Springs is a municipal department, and their administration is in the city government. South Metro is a fire district, so all of our administration is in our workforce.
How will you manage the transition/onboarding of the new departments?
We want the best people in the right positions. If you've got a strong succession model, and you've prepared people for future opportunities, you're set up for success.
One of the things that sets us apart is education. If somebody wants to be promoted to a company officer, they need an associate's degree. If they want to advance to battalion chief or captain, they need a bachelor's degree. Anyone on the executive team needs a master's degree. We believe a profession requires professionals. Our organization has the best qualified people of any department in Colorado with the highest educational standards. That's how we prepare people to handle managing a larger-sized department.
Unification will be successful because we have really good leaders who have been prepared for a long time. It won't be so much my leadership at the top as our rank and file members who will make this successful.
What will be your approach to managing a department of this size?
The foundation of my leadership won't change. I believe that good leaders have a servant heart, a teachable spirit, and are compassionate and competent. The day you retire, you should be better than you were the day before. I'm working hard to make sure I'm prepared for the challenge, and that I'm deserving of it. Being in leadership is a huge honor, and especially in public safety.
One of the things I talk to my board about is spending time with other organizations that have gone through this. There aren't many, but in California, there's Orange County, Los Angeles, and Sacramento's departments that have gone through similar endeavors. I'll be spending time with the leaders of those organizations to learn from their successes and challenges.
Maintaining connectivity to the folks in government and the elected officials in the areas we serve is key. Full unification would involve 11 different municipalities — 12 if you count Highlands Ranch (an unincorporated community). We want to stay in touch and connected with county commissioners, mayors and city managers.
This is not South Metro leading this initiative. This is a very collaborative strategy that's been facilitated and communicated by three fire chiefs and three labor representatives. That's pretty much unprecedented. Many organizations gobble up smaller ones, but that we would hold hands and believe that this is the right thing to do for our citizens and employees is an anomaly. It speaks very highly of my counterparts. We're in positions to lead with principle and integrity, and I feel like we're doing that.
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