The case for merging the county’s fire departments

A Wichita Fire Department engine.
A Wichita Fire Department engine. File photo

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

There’s talk that Wichita and Sedgwick County could merge fire departments.

They have talked before. Something always scuttled what seems like a concept so sensible that it makes you wonder why they didn’t merge back when both departments’ engines were lime green.

The latest round has been described as “collegial conversation(s)” between the county, Wichita and Derby (welcome to the merger game, Panthers!).

County commission chairman Dave Unruh said most commissioners are in favor of possible consolidation. No word yet from Wichita or Derby.

County counselor Eric Yost asked the Attorney General’s Office for clarification on Kansas law with consolidation of fire districts and departments. Yost described talks as being in early stages.

A merger has been much closer before.

In 1999, the county proposed an operation led by Wichita chief Larry Garcia, with county chief Gary Curmode second in command.

City manager Chris Cherches rejected the proposal because he thought language made it clear Garcia would report to both Cherches and county manager Bill Buchanan.

The city and county tried to merge fire truck maintenance in 2002, but it fell apart when city officials angered county officials by taking files and computers from a joint maintenance shop. The city later apologized.

Fast forward three years and another proposal. City Council members and county commissioners supported a concept of a fire agency operated separately from the city and county, but with oversight from both. It was left up to city and county staffs to work out details.

They never got worked out.

There are many reasons to merge departments. Crews already help each other with calls. Sedgwick County’s department has continued to shrink as Wichita annexes more land and grows its department’s area of coverage.

Most importantly, it’s a chance for more efficiency between the three departments.

But there are hurdles. How would the chain of command work? Would city and county firefighters be able to agree on a contract? Would the tax burden be shared equitably between the cities and county?

Yost noted the hard part of merger talks “will be the political part of it.” When three fire departments have lived separately under their own governments for this long, it won’t be an easy sell.

Still, it’s no joke. One county-wide fire department continues to be worth talking about.