ALL ENGINES GO: 3 Aurora-area fire districts discussing merger

“These are three agencies that are doing pretty well on their own,” said Cunningham Chief Jerry Rhodes. “But we really see a lot of benefit to the three coming together.”

AURORA | For years, some of the smaller fire departments around the metro area have whispered about merging, combining their resources for the purchasing and recruiting power of a large department.

Other than a handful of recent mergers — South Metro Fire Rescue and Parker Fire Rescue merging last year and the cities of Sheridan and Englewood contracting with Denver fire for service in 2015 — the conversations have generally stalled.

But now, three smaller local departments, Cunningham Fire Protection District, South Metro and Littleton Fire Rescue, are discussing a merger that would create the third largest fire department in Colorado, surpassing Aurora fire in terms of firefighting personnel.

“These are three agencies that are doing pretty well on their own,” said Cunningham Chief Jerry Rhodes. “But we really see a lot of benefit to the three coming together.”

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Cunningham firefighter Shawn Shaffner sits in a firetruck as he and other firefighters check on their coverage area on Monday Jan. 16, 2017 at . Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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Cunningham Fire Proctection District Lt. Jeremy Bartell checks the location of a fire hydrant on Monday Jan. 16, 2017 in unincorporated Arapahoe County. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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Cunningham firefighter Shawn Shaffner sits in a firetruck as he and other firefighters check on their coverage area on Monday Jan. 16, 2017 at . Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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Cunningham Fire Proctection District is considering merging with South Metro Fire Rescue and Littleton Fire Rescue on Monday Jan. 16, 2017. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

The three sides are still in the discussion phase and officials say there is no timeline for how soon the merger could happen. It also isn’t clear yet what the makeup of the new fire protection district’s board of directors would be and whether it would include representatives already overseeing the three departments.

But, Mark Lampert, acting president of the Cunningham board of director, said these conversations seem to be more serious than the ideas floated several times in recent decades.

“This is the furthest I’ve ever seen us go where all levels are looking forward to seeing this continue on,” he said. “In previous years we always hit a roadblock along the way.”

Combined, the three departments would have more than 600 firefighters — about 400 from South Metro, 150 from Littleton and about 70 from Cunningham. That would make the department bigger than Aurora and smaller than only Denver.

Rhodes said that added size could be key for the new department.

Now, when Cunningham — which covers a 14-square-mile swath of Centennial and unincorporated Arapahoe County, as well as neighborhoods that border Aurora Fire’s coverage area — sets out to make a big purchase, it often means they are buying just one rig, he said. If the larger department needed to make big purchases, they could be buying three or five rigs and that could mean overall savings, he said.

The merger could also allow the new department to consolidate some fire stations, he said, if officials determine they already have a fire house covering a particular area.

Lampert said there are other benefits for Cunningham, which is the smallest of the three agencies.  Today, there isn’t always a lot of opportunity for Cunningham firefighters to move steadily up the ranks, he said, because the smaller department simply has fewer positions.

With the merger, the new department could offer more opportunity to move up.

CJ Whelan, who served as the president of Cunningham’s board before stepping down at the end of 2016, said the merger could also mean more specialized units that Cunningham doesn’t currently offer, such as swift water rescue and wildland firefighting teams. Those specialized units could help with recruiting, he said.

As for how the change could effect residents of the three departments — which could include about 500,000 people — Whelan said he didn’t think they would notice much of a change, particularly in Cunningham.

“Most people are very unaware of it until they need it,” he said of the fire service. “And when they need it, it is an emergency.”

If the agencies thought the changes would lead to added costs or diminished response times, Whelan said the talks wouldn’t have progressed the way they have.

“I think there would be improvements across the board,” he said.

South Metro has experience with mergers, having started the process of merging its department with Parker fire in 2008 and finalizing the merger last year.

South Metro Fire Chief Bob Baker said that unification has saved Parker residents tax dollars. Because of it, the mill levy those residents pay has dropped 33 percent, he said.

Considering the benefits they’ve already seen from their most-recent merger, Baker said this one makes sense.

“The unified organization would have the ability to improve customer service and uniformity across a larger region with more efficiencies, more support, and more resources,” he said in an email.

Plus, Baker said the departments already work closely.

“That’s why unification makes sense with our neighboring fire agencies,” he said. “We have very strong relationships with them and if we can look at providing consolidated services to our citizens that allow for better response times and increased service opportunities, we definitely want to look at that.”