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California City Solutions: Morgan Hill Preserves General Fund Revenues by Re-Establishing its Fire Department

December 5, 2014
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
The 2014 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. Morgan Hill’s Re-established Fire Department was submitted in 2014 for the CCS Partnership Intergovernmental Collaboration award category.
Morgan-Hill-El-Toro-Fire-Station.jpgAs many communities consolidated, merged, or contracted out their existing fire services to meet budgetary needs, the city of Morgan Hill instead decided to re-establish its fire department. This decision yielded a savings of more than $500,000 to the city’s General Fund within the first year, regionalized emergency service delivery, improved dispatch efficiency, increased emergency response times and improved community outreach.

The Great Recession and the state’s dissolution of Redevelopment Agencies significantly impacted  Morgan Hill’s ability to continually fund its public services. City officials strategically evaluated existing service delivery models trying to find a solution so it could continue providing valuable services while saving dwindling General Fund resources. Public meetings were held to involve the community and stakeholders and give them a chance to provide input to ensure high quality, effective, and efficient Fire/EMS services. After much discussion, the city determined that its best option would be to transform its existing fire and emergency medical services (Fire/EMS).
Morgan-Hill-Fire-Truck.jpgMorgan Hill founded its fire department in 1907 and continued to own and operate it until the early 1990s. At that time, the Morgan Hill City Council acted to sell its stations and equipment, and contract out its service delivery responsibilities to the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District (Central Fire). Under this approach, the city had no direct authority for its Fire/EMS service delivery and would pay Central Fire a rising annual contract cost.
Simultaneously, neighboring South Santa Clara Fire Protection District (South County Fire) was being served by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and provided mutual aid responses to portions of southern Morgan Hill. South County Fire completely surrounded Morgan Hill and one of its fire stations served as the city’s unofficial third fire station. While this model worked for a number of years, tax related revenues were decreasing and Central Fire’s costs were increasing, creating a financial burden on the city’s General Fund. Additionally, South County Fire leaders questioned the city’s reliance on its resources to regularly serve Morgan Hill without just compensation.Morgan-Hill-CERT-Extinguisher-Training.jpg
Morgan Hill participated in regional Fire/EMS discussions and analysis starting in 2009 with neighboring agencies. These discussions did not produce a plan for service regionalization, resource sharing, or cost containment, but did provide motivation for Morgan Hill to re-establish its own fire department. The city’s research determined that this decision could save $500,000 (or approximately 10 percent of its current Fire/EMS cost) annually and further the long-awaited regionalization of Fire/EMS. The city hired a consultant to assist with the RFP process and on Dec. 8, 2011 released its RFP seeking applications from qualified agencies and firms to provide Fire/EMS.
CAL FIRE was among the proposals received to provide administration and personnel services to operate the new department. CAL FIRE’s proposal recommended that Morgan Hill and South County Fire share resources by implementing a full boundary drop system, a procedure of dispatching the closest resource to a call rather than by its jurisdictional boundaries. CAL FIRE also proposed having the city pay for one-third of South County Fire’s Engine Company, sharing expenses for a fire marshal, training captain, three battalion chiefs, sharing of reserve engines, an aerial ladder truck, and support vehicles.Morgan-Hill-House-Fire-and-Crew.jpg
After months of analyzing the proposal and negotiating contract terms with CAL FIRE officials, the city council approved a contract with CAL FIRE as its new service provider. On Jan. 3, 2013, the city’s fire department was officially re-established as it acquired back its two fire stations, lease-purchased new gear and support vehicles, and began its contract for personnel service with CAL FIRE. Additionally, Morgan Hill was now officially being served by South County Fire as its third station.
Morgan Hill’s strategic decision to re-establish its own fire department within a regional context has resulted in the following outcomes:
  • Positive Fiscal Impact The city initially estimated that it could save $500,000 annually by implementing a new service delivery model. However, it soon became apparent that the annual saving would be upwards of $800,000. The savings is attributable to a combination of savings from its annual debt service payments for the stations and apparatus, as well as the lower expense of CAL FIRE personnel. The re-establishment of Morgan Hill’s fire department also resulted in South County Fire saving approximately $300,000 annually due to the city paying for a portion of an existing Engine Company and sharing other personnel and equipment resources. In total, the region saves approximately $1.1 million on an annual basis. Morgan-Hill-Rescue-Training.jpg
  • Advanced Public Safety Regionalization Regionalization of Fire/EMS has been studied for many years in south Santa Clara County and the city is proud to be a leader in making the necessary local decisions to further a concept that is routinely discussed throughout the country. The city’s vision and implementation of this new service delivery model has been a significant step forward in advancing the regionalization of public safety services and is a strong statement about Morgan Hill’s leadership and desire to work collaboratively with other organizations for the benefit of its residents.
  • Improved Dispatch Efficiency Prior to the new service delivery model, it could take up to three dispatch centers (Morgan Hill, Central and South County) handling a call for fire services. Now, one step has been completely removed which saves valuable time from the minute the dispatch center receives a call to ringing the station which has proven invaluable in responding to fire scenes or calls for medical services, where literally every second counts.
  • Improved Response Times Morgan-Hill-Fire-House-Open-House.jpgCAL FIRE committed to meeting a performance standard of responding to calls for service within 8 minutes, 95 percent of the time. In the first 12 months of operation, the Morgan Hill Fire Department surpassed the expectation and is averaging response times within 5 minutes 97 percent of the time.
  • Improved Community Outreach & Public Outreach CAL FIRE exceeded the city’s expectation for community outreach and education. In 2013, firefighters worked with 1,236 children and 636 adults through school visits, station tours, special events, and CERT trainings educating them about fire safety, hazardous products, disaster preparedness, and a career as a firefighter. Most recently, the new fire department joined the other cities throughout Santa Clara County to launch the PulsePoint app to assist in improving sudden cardiac arrest response. Morgan-Hill-Open-House-Children.jpg
With the support and cooperation of the city, Central Fire, CAL FIRE, and South County Fire the shift from one fire provider of 17 years to a new provider was seamless. The value of the new department has increased its value to the community by engaging with students, parents, business owners, builders, and community partners. The decision has proven to save significant General Fund dollars and advance public service regionalization and collaboration.

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